Ontario candidates pledge review of cannabis policy

Ontario candidates pledge review of cannabis policy

A display case of products at Bonnefire, a cannabis store on Queen Street West, in Toronto, on March 26.Ian Willms/The New York Times News Service

Some Ontario provincial political party leaders are promising to revisit cannabis policy if elected and some industry leaders are on board. But others in the sector say key issues have been ignored entirely by party platforms.

During a campaign stop, Ontario Liberal Leader Stephen Del Duca criticized the Progressive Conservatives for their handling of the process of opening cannabis stores, saying it was “random” and “arbitrary.”

At the time of legalization in 2019, Ontario municipalities were asked if they wanted to opt out from cannabis stores. Forty-five out of 415 did so, leaving swaths of the province with no in-person cannabis stores.

The Ontario Cannabis Store, the provincial crown corporation that manages cannabis sales, does offer online sales and delivery, but this amounted to just 4.2 per cent of all sales in the most recent quarter, according to an OSC report.

Meanwhile, some of the cities and towns that opted in to having cannabis stores complain they have little control over where those stores are positioned, with several outlets operating within the same block in some areas.

Mr. Del Duca said the Liberals would enact new policies that would require a minimum distance between stores, using a similar model to the one now applied between stores and schools.

Small towns, migrant workers are casualties of the continuing cannabis industry bust

Currently, cannabis stores must not be located less than 150 metres from a school or private school, as defined in Ontario’s Education Act.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said her party would do the same, reviewing the policy and possibly putting limits on the number of cannabis stores that can operate within a designated area.

She pointed to a bill tabled before the election by Marit Stiles, NDP MPP for Toronto’s Dovercourt riding, which aimed to strengthen the role of municipalities in regulating pot shops.

“There was no consideration given to location, and particularly to municipal planning,” Ms. Stiles said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We should have a process similar to what municipalities have for liquor licences.”

PC Leader Doug Ford said market forces were adequate for solving issues of cannabis store concentration, and municipalities would make the best decisions for their neighbourhoods.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s cannabis or or another type of the store, the market will take care of it,” Mr. Ford said at a campaign stop.

The PC Party did not respond before publication time to further questions about reviewing cannabis policy.

In an e-mail, a Green Party of Ontario spokesperson said the Party “would work with municipalities to ensure that the placement and number of cannabis shops is matched to the size of their communities.”

The spokesperson also said the party would review municipal participation in the 2019 opt-out system and aim improve the education surrounding the substance. However, the party makes no reference to cannabis in its 64-page platform document.

To some cannabis retailers, the pledges are good news. Raj Grover, president of cannabis retailer High Tide Inc., said in an e-mail the company would welcome added oversight into the placement of new cannabis stores.

“The over-concentration of cannabis stores in certain urban neighbourhoods is definitely impacting the margins of many independent cannabis retailers,” said Mr. Gover. “We feel that this added flexibility will help Ontario municipalities like Mississauga opt in to bricks-and-mortar cannabis sales, thus taking another bite out of illicit market profits.”

George Smitherman, president of the Cannabis Council of Canada, said while he agrees the provincial government’s approach to store opening was “haphazard,” further policy would be “unnecessary” where market forces would adequately shape the retail landscape.

Instead, Mr. Smitherman said he was disappointed key issues were being ignored by all parties, with concerns about retail store placement “pale in comparison to the structural issues” the industry faces.

Mr. Smitherman said he also had hoped to see an acknowledgement of a recent report by the provincial Auditor-General that “highlighted the problems associated with the very, very high rates of markup at the Ontario Cannabis Store,” as well as discussion of a leak from the OSC which resulted in the sharing of confidential store sales data of 1,500 stores.

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