By Star Editorial BoardTues., July 30, 2019

Let’s be clear: operating an illegal cannabis dispensary cannot be condoned.

For establishments like Cannabis and Fine Edibles (CAFE), whose Toronto locations have been repeatedly raided and eventually rather comically shut down by the city through the use of stacked concrete blocks in front of store entrances, this is a reality that must be accepted.

But the continuing popularity of alternative means of purchasing marijuana and its byproducts shows the teething problems that were expected to follow legalization last October are far from over more than nine months later.

Many of the problems stem from the stringent licencing and regulation requirements imposed by Ottawa on suppliers and distributors. Adding to that has been the province’s painfully slow and complex rollout of physical retail locations, including a random lottery for just 25 licences throughout all of Ontario.

Most of the winners were sole proprietors with no previous industry experience, who then affiliated themselves with large cannabis corporations. A lottery for another 50 licences is expected to open in the fall.

In the meantime, though, there are only five legal retail pot stores operating in Toronto. And many parts of the province, including much of the GTA, are limited to online access via the Ontario Cannabis Store. That’s because some municipalities chose not to allow any cannabis outlets at all.

No wonder illegal outlets like those run by CAFE still attract customers, even if it means buying on the sidewalk outside stores closed down and blockaded by police.

Governments clearly haven’t managed the rollout of legal cannabis well, especially in Ontario. The 25 legal outlets mean the province has just one store for every 200,000 people. Alberta, by contrast, has one per 28,000 people.

This is defeating one of the key goals of legalization: to destroy the black market and stop illegal operators from raking in profits from cannabis sales.

But the continuing popularity of illegal dispensaries in the centre of Canada’s biggest city is a wakeup call to governments to do better. Too many consumers of what is now, after all, a legal product can’t get satisfaction from the official distribution system.

Price and quality of legal pot remain important for consumers, as does accessibility and convenience, as Star reporter Jason Miller found from speaking to people who continue to buy from CAFE even after it was officially closed down. “There are laws allowing us to smoke it, but so many laws preventing us from accessing it,” said one man.

Statistics Canada recently found that authorized retailers charge as much as 80 per cent more than the black market — which is still thriving even though it declined over the first three months of this year.

CAFE also runs a thriving sideline in the sale of edibles — pot-infused candies and confections. These aren’t yet legal in Canada though it’s expected they will become available for sale by mid-December.

As the Star has said before, the caution being employed in controlling packaging and marketing of these products is commendable and prudent. But the delay means the current demand from consumers seeking non-smoking methods of consuming cannabis isn’t being met.

Of course the city and Toronto police can’t ignore the flagrant violation of laws and regulations designed to make sure the legal cannabis market is safe, free from organized crime and doesn’t involve sale to minors. In a similar fashion, the liquor industry is regulated and we don’t allow bootleggers to set up shop wherever they like with impunity.Get more opinion in your inboxGet the latest from your favourite Star columnists with our Opinion newsletter.Sign Up Now

But when red tape and poor planning are preventing the legal market from satisfying consumers, it’s no surprise that some are still turning to the black market for their supply. All levels of government need to do a better job of meeting the demand.

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