Torontonians Love Their Dispensaries. Why Is Mayor Tory Dead Set Against Them?

When a cannabis consulting firm determined Toronto had taken over from Vancouver as the Canadian city with the most marijuana dispensaries, the firm’s owner was excited. “In the next month or two, we might have as many dispensaries as Pizza Pizzas in Toronto,” Harrison Jordan said, referring to the ubiquitous fast food restaurants.

Not everyone in Toronto shares his enthusiasm about marijuana dispensaries but a lot of residents are perfectly fine with them. In fact, research indicates many people in Ontario would now like to see recreational marijuana sold in dispensaries when it becomes legal next year.

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In a Forum Research survey conducted in April 2016, 52% of Ontario respondents said they thought that dedicated cannabis dispensaries would be the best place to sell recreational marijuana after legalization. In a survey conducted by Nanos Research just last month, 55% of Ontario residents said they would prefer that marijuana be sold by such licensed private retailers rather than province-run liquor stores.

52% of Ontario survey respondents say dedicated cannabis dispensaries are the best place to sell recreational marijuana. But Toronto Mayor Tory has not wavered.

Despite such findings, Toronto Mayor John Tory has not wavered from the hardline stance he took against dispensaries when he took office almost three years ago.

The same week the Nanos survey results were released, Tory sent an open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stating his opposition to dispensaries in many parts of the city. “I have made it clear that while I support the legalization of marijuana, I do not think the people of Toronto would support the future widespread location of outlets for the sale of marijuana in residential neighborhoods or in certain retail areas,” said Tory.

In June, two months after the federal government confirmed its intention to legalize recreational marijuana in July 2018, Tory said he would like to see dispensary raids continue in Toronto.

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Why does the mayor remain steadfast in his opposition to dispensaries while so many Ontarians have indicated they want cannabis available through such private retailers once recreational use becomes legal? The answer depends on whom you ask.

In defending his desire to continue police raids, Tory notes that dispensaries are not currently legal. He attributes his trepidation about dispensaries post-legalization by citing nebulous concerns about safety. He says he’s concerned that dispensaries might not “fit within [Toronto’s] communities” and that he’s worried about the well-being of children. At a press conference in June, Tory said residents of one Toronto neighbourhood had told him that people were being harassed at ATMs by others looking for money to buy marijuana at a nearby dispensary.

But the mayor’s critics see other factors at play.

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Lisa Campbell, spokesperson for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association, attributes Tory’s criticism of dispensaries to his desire to “play nice” with Wynne, who has expressed interest in having recreational cannabis sold at province-controlled liquor stores.

In recent months, Tory has asked the Wynne government to agree to an arrangement in which Toronto will share tax revenue generated by legal marijuana sales. He has also asked the province for more money to maintain Toronto’s massive transit system, two busiest expressways and public housing—so it’s in his best interest to be on good terms with the Premier, says Campbell. “He’s doing a great job of being friendly with other levels of government,” she adds.

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Like other Tory detractors, Campbell also attributes the mayor’s stand against dispensaries, in part, to a cozy relationship with “big money” entities that would prefer different sales models. The first of those are the licensed producers that now sell medical cannabis directly to Canadians and are poised to do the same with recreational marijuana once it’s legal. The second such entity is the wealthy family, the Westons, that owns Canada’s biggest pharmacy chain, Shoppers Drug Mart, and would like medical and, possibly, recreational marijuana to be sold there.

Campbell and other critics note that Tory himself comes from the Canadian establishment. His great-grandfather founded Sun Life of Canada, a big financial services company, and his father helped build one of Canada’s most influential and politically connected law firms, Torys LLP.

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While Tory’s motivation for opposing dispensaries is a matter of debate, one fact is not: With the legalization date less than a year away, the mayor of Toronto is at odds with many of his constituents about where recreational marijuana should be sold, making the future of cannabis in Canada’s biggest city a little hazy.