It has been a year since the federal government legalized cannabis across the country and most would say the ride was a little bumpy.
Daniel Bear, a drug policy expert and professor in the Faculty of Social and Community Services at Humber College, said the main argument to legalize was to keep cannabis out of minors and take production and sales away from the black market.
But many problems have arisen since the rollout last October.
“The biggest issue we see here in Ontario is a lack of access to retail stores,” he said.
Bear said this problem is in part due to Doug Ford’s win as Premier in June 2018 when he scrapped the plan of 40 physical stores across Ontario. There are currently only 25.
“Based on the current allocation of licences, of the 40 stores which will soon be in Ontario, seven will be on Queen St. in Toronto,” he said.
To put it into perspective, Ontario has a population of 14.6 million. Alberta, with a population of four million, has 300 stores.
Physical stores are necessary for many people who may not know a lot about cannabis and understand what they are buying, Bear said.
“They want to go talk to someone, see the product and smell the product,” rather than buying off of a website, he said.
Cameron Brown, the communications officer of The Hunny Pot downtown Toronto, which was the first retail store in Ontario, said he sees the roll out a little differently. He said fewer stores meant more product on the shelves when the roll out first happened due to supply.
“The approach the government ended up taking was the right approach because if we had opened any more than 25 stores, we would have had stores sitting there open with no product,” he said.
The process of having physical retail stores was a long and complicated one. Originally the former Liberal government planned for the LCBO to sell legal cannabis. Once it was scrapped the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) was created, who decided to become a distributor instead of opening locations. Ultimately, a lottery was used to give equal opportunity to prospective businesses.
“Ontario took a wait-and-see approach to understand better how the [other provinces] did it and find out how they wanted to do it a little bit differently,” Brown said.
Bear said many people are using the online stores provided by the government due to the lack of physical access to products, which has its own problems.
Apart from being slow, he said many people have been wary of providing their credit cards and information “into sources that say ‘I buy cannabis,’” particularly because people can be barred from entering the U.S. if they have information about anyone using or buying a drug on its banned list.
Bear said keeping sales away from the black market has been difficult for the government considering legal cannabis has been more expensive since legalization. He said it’s about $4 a gram more than illicit cannabis, meaning an ounce a month is a $130 annual difference.
“It has been very enticing to go to the black market,” he said. “[They have] been dropping its price to interest people. It’s the way to keep customers.”
Raymond Marshall, a medicinal and casual smoker in the Travel and Tourism program, said his main concern was the high cost associated with legal cannabis.
“I order online now because I just moved to the city, but I’ve actually been getting pretty decent prices online, so I guess it’s been getting better,” the 35-year-old said.
Another concern of his is the quality of the cannabis provided by the government. Marshall said being a smoker before the rollout he noticed a difference in the standard of cannabis in stores.
“The quality in stores is just not worth it,” he said.
Bear said buying cannabis legally is also made difficult when the black market offers products not currently offered legally such as edibles. However, edibles will be legally on shelves by Dec. 16 because of recent legislation.
Brown said the second year of legalization sees 50 more stores coming online in Ontario, improving distribution and accessibility for customers. Cannabis 2.0 will also introduce beverages, edibles and vapes for those who choose not to smoke.