Can a community overdose on too many THC dispensaries?
The rabid proliferation of cannabis stores involves a decrease in local consumer choice.
When I arrived in Ottawa roughly three and a half years ago, I was happy to find that there was a local watering hole where I could perhaps develop a few local friendships. It was a small pub called Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill. Then the pandemic hit, destroying virtually all possible unregimented public social interaction and ushering in a period I call the atomistic age.
It was not until people started emerging from their protective, sanitizer-slathered cocoons that an opportunity to visit the bar presented itself. I was received by a number of warm, distinctive characters there, and was quickly initiated into the scene through an exchange of jovial ribbings and quasi-philosophical insights, like in Cheers. When I reported this intel back to my girlfriend, who is a relative newcomer to Ottawa as well, she became intrigued. It was a natural reaction for a die-hard Cheers fan (Noooorm!). But alas, she missed her chance, for soon after my visit to the establishment, the business shuttered. The pandemic and its aftermath seemed to put an incredible strain on small businesses throughout Ottawa — note that the Royal Oak on Laurier, a university student bar, also permanently closed during the pandemic.
However, while some businesses continue to struggle, others seem to thrive. One sector that appears particularly pandemic-resistant is the cannabis industry. There are eleven or so dispensaries a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. Given the ubiquity of these stores, whenever I observe a new cannabis storefront, I ask myself: What sort of business could have been made locally available to us instead? A fruit and vegetable shop? A hardware store? A bakery? A florist? A pharmacy? — probably already enough pharmacies. What’s more, it’s a sad thought that instead of sharing big dreams around a pint of cheap beer, students are at home smoking reefers in front of their computers (admittedly, “the anti-social stoner” is a stereotype).
Granted, there are complicated economic forces at play that determine the viability of any given business, and economic forces cannot be isolated from the interests of consumers. Sandy Hill businesses are in the vicinity of a large university student population, for example, which, if we are to again indulge in some more or less innocent stereotyping, might help explain the high concentration (no pun intended) of cannabis stores. But if one pursues that stereotype a little further, surely students also enjoy visiting bars. And besides, don’t people who smoke pot also enjoy fruits and vegetables, fresh bread, and pretty flowers? Moreover, certainly the fact that virtually everywhere one looks is a cannabis store can, in part, shape people’s interests. A broadening of local shopping services might facilitate a corollary broadening of interests.
In the backdrop of the discussion regarding the proliferation of cannabis stores are questions about the societal and health consequences of the legalization of cannabis. Does the legalization of cannabis lead to an increase in consumption? Does legalization have an effect on crime? Is cannabis consumption on the whole good or bad for one’s health? A cursory review of the literature on such topics gives me the impression that even the most dedicated of scholars will have their work cut out for them separating the signal from the noise. And a lack of true clarity in this regard paired with the explosion of cannabis stores is, I believe, cause for some concern.
As I walked down Rideau street the other day on my way back from a pharmacy, I was approached by two teenage males. Trying to put a twenty-dollar bill into my hands, they asked me if I would kindly go and purchase some cannabis for them. They insisted that they were of legal age and that they had simply forgotten their IDs at home (pretty lame cover). Of course, I refused.
When I neared the liquor store and a number of immiserated people injecting hard-drugs, a new sign caught my eye: behold, it was a magic mushroom dispensary. It is only a matter of time before teenagers start approaching me to buy shrooms, it seems. When I got home, I turned on the news only to hear that small quantities of cocaine and opioids have been decriminalized in British Columbia — much the same policy change is being initiated in Toronto. It will be interesting to see whether this policy, ostensibly designed in part to “reduce the stigma” of drug use and therefore to mitigate the associated harms of such stigma, will have a net positive societal effect (I suspect reducing stigma in this case is a double-edged sword).
How do we incentivize a diversity of local businesses rather than a cannabis (or, dare I say, pharmacy, or pizza, or shawarma) monoculture? How do we effectively encourage businesses that promote societal health and expand rather than diminish the horizon of local consumer choice? And finally, if we are going to have a multiplicity of local cannabis stores, then there should likewise be a nice pub or two in our area so that we may practice relaxed free association once again and shed what is left of our atomistic pandemic cocoons.
F. Adam Sopuck