TORONTO — If you are hankering for a government-sanctioned joint, then you have come to the right city.
The options along Queen Street West are bountiful. You could start at Toronto Cannabis Authority, with a sign outside suggesting customers “warm up with hot cannabis infused beverages.” You could take a few steps down the sidewalk and enter Friendly Stranger, which trades on nostalgia for tokers who picked up their first bong here, long before cannabis was legalized three and a half years ago. Or you could dash across the street to the Hunny Pot, which made headlines in 2019, when it became the city’s first legal cannabis store and saw an overnight line of customers.
And that’s just in 1,000 square feet. Walk two minutes and three more options appear.
“There’s a standing joke in Toronto that dispensaries are sprinkled around like parsley. They are everywhere,” said Dalandrea Adams, a budtender standing behind the long glass display counter — revealing pipes, grinders and rollers — inside Friendly Stranger. “Which is convenient, if you are a pothead.”
As Toronto slowly comes back to life after two years of repeated lockdowns and closures, the wreckage of the pandemic is surfacing like cigarette butts in melted snow drifts. Along the city’s many neighborhood main streets, “For lease” signs hang in dusty windows. Office towers in the city’s dense core remain mostly empty.
The obvious exception: cannabis shops, which the provincial government permitted by emergency order to keep operating during the pandemic. Just 12 existed in the sprawling city of 2.8 million back in March 2020. Today, 430 compete for customers, with another 88 in the approval process, even as some struggle to stay open amid the stiff competition.
“It’s the wild, wild West,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, a city councilor who supported the legalization of cannabis but has called for a moratorium on new shops in the city.
“Never at any community meeting has anyone said, ‘Our neighborhood is not complete without a pot shop,’” she said. “But now, in some places, you can’t get groceries but you can get weed.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than along Queen Street West.
For years, the downtown road has been known as the city’s pulsing heart for music, art and street fashion. Starting at the Court of Appeal, it stretches past a jazz hall, restaurants and retail stores selling Doc Martens and sunglasses — all jumbled together in tight storefronts.
There’s an old instrument shop where Bruce Cockburn picked up guitars, and music venues where the classic Canadian band Blue Rodeo and international stars like the South African musician Hugh Masekela played on Friday nights.
Over the past two decades, the street has gentrified and lost much of its grit — a Lululemon replaced the world-music BamBoo club and many of the vintage clothing stores have been supplanted by chains. If only through nostalgia, the strip still retains its artsy, hipster reputation.
But lately, just about the only thing that has opened here is pot shops: There are 13 along a 1.4 kilometer drag.
“It’s like, ‘Oh look, another pot store, next to the pot store, across from the pot store,’” said Teddy Fury, who has been serving beers on the street for 35 years now at the Horseshoe Tavern. The shops are just the latest trend he’s seen and an occupied store is better than an empty one, he said. But it does raise an obvious question: “How stoned are people getting?”
The reasons for the sudden proliferation across the city include loosening license restrictions, a surge in available storefront space and the government’s decision to allow cannabis shops to operate during lockdowns. While Toronto restaurants were ordered to close for more than 60 weeks, according to Restaurants Canada, cannabis stores serviced customers — though sometimes just at their doors — for all but a handful of days.
“It was a perfect storm of supply and demand in Ontario,” said Jack Lloyd, a lawyer specializing in cannabis.
In 2018, Canada became the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalize marijuana, in an effort to extinguish the criminal trade and keep the substance out of the hands of youth by regulating the market. The stores appeared slowly at first, because of a shortage of legal marijuana. The provincial government permitted just five to open in Toronto, North America’s fourth biggest city, in the spring of 2019.
Two of those were along Queen Street West.
Back then, some 20 salespeople worked four retail floors of the Hunny Pot, walking a never-ending line of customers through the finer differences between various strains of marijuana. The store had two extra floors for celebrities, so they could shop in private. On its best day, more than 2,000 customers came through, said Cameron Brown, the communications manager for the Hunny Pot, which now has 17 cannabis stores in Ontario.
“It was nonstop, all day, every day,” he said. “It was insane.”
Competition remained limited for the first year. But just as the pandemic arrived, the doors were thrown wide open for retail licenses. Unlike other jurisdictions in the country, the Ontario government favored unbridled competition, introducing just one simple restriction on shops, requiring that they be no closer than 150 meters to a school.
In only three years, sales of legal marijuana in Ontario have outpaced estimates of unlicensed sales and boosted the economy by $10.6 billion, a recent government-sponsored report states. More Canadians consume it than did before — 25 percent of people 16 and up, according to a recent Statistics Canada poll.
But the crowded competition has pushed some shops out of business.
By the time Lula Fukur’s license was finally approved, and she opened her first of two cannabis shops on Queen West last year, there was already one across the street, with another three opening two blocks away.
“There’s too many of them,” she said, sitting at the end of her cavernous, artfully decorated and noticeably empty store, Cori, on a recent afternoon. “Definitely half of us will shut down. Everyone is burning money at this point.”
In their heyday, the first cannabis stores were selling $20,000 a day of marijuana, on average, according to a government report. But the Hunny Pot is serving just one-tenth of its record, Mr. Brown said, forcing management to close all but the front foyer, where a budtender serves customers from a simple desk. Cori is lucky to see 60 people a day, said Ms. Fukur, who plans to fill half of one store with natural wellness and beauty products, hoping that draws more customers.
Even more than unfettered competition, the biggest problem for store owners is an inability to differentiate their product, said Ms. Fukur. Every legal store is required to get their supply from the government wholesaler. That means they all sell the same things, in the same plain, sealed packages.
Most have tried to entice customers with friendly, knowledgeable service and unique interior design — a difficult feat, given government rules forbid cannabis or accessories being visible from the street.
“It feels like it’s still illegal,” said Ms. Fukur, who has created a window display reminiscent of a health food store, with vases of dried flowers on wooden stumps. The nearby store Bonnefire appears like a walk into the Canadian bush, with birch trees, canoes and log piles.
Already, one of the new stores on Queen West closed. Most expect more to follow. Even so, the government is reviewing another five applications for cannabis stores on the strip.
Hollywood Hi is an old fashioned head shop a few doors down from Friendly Stranger. Its window is filled with rolling trays and a giant inflatable joint — permitted only because the store is not selling cannabis. The owner, Christina Ciddio, applied for a cannabis license two years ago. She still doesn’t have it, and she’s happy about that.
“Do they not check maps to see how close they are?” she said of the government office approving new stores.
She figures she is making more money selling cannabis paraphernalia than her neighbors do selling pot.
“Yeah, I don’t have cannabis,” she said. “At this point, with the saturation, I don’t want to. They can have it.”