Back in April, Ontario announced that one of its new cannabis stores would be situated in a quiet strip mall in Scarborough, tucked between a FreshCo and a Rogers outlet.
Was that too close to the local elementary school, Blantyre Public School? Well, you be the judge: front door to front door, it’s about 300 metres in a straight line, or 430 metres to walk.
As far as Ontario premier Doug Ford is concerned, that’s far too close. He’s said so multiple times.
In early May, during the provincial election campaign, he brought it up in a televised debate.
“I won’t put [cannabis retail] beside schools like you did,” he told then-premier Kathleen Wynne. “It was beside a school on your watch.”
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As a freshly elected premier in June, asked about his new government’s plans to sell legal cannabis, he said very little other than that the Scarborough cannabis store site had been much too close to a school.
“My priority is to make sure that we protect our children, we don’t make the mistakes of the previous Liberal government by putting a pot store right beside a school, which is absolutely ridiculous and it won’t happen under our administration.”
Since then, Ford’s government has announced that public sector online sales will begin in October and private sector cannabis stores will open next April, after applicants have been screened and rules have been made for them — like how close they can be to schools.
Well, if 300 metres is too close, how about 500? It’s a starting point, at least.
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But here’s the problem: Toronto is a big place, but it’s also home to over 1,000 schools of one sort or another — public, separate, and private. And if you start drawing 500-metre radiuses — each a kilometre wide — around all of them, it quickly takes up quite a lot of the city.
And you can’t just start a retail store wherever you feel like it; the site has to have the proper zoning.
If you put the radiuses on the map, and also look at area zoned for retail or employment (but not employment zones for heavy industry, where no retail is allowed), the map looks like this. Dark purple areas are where cannabis stores might be able to go, under a fairly lenient interpretation of the zoning rules:
Where could cannabis stores go under a 500-metre rule?
In the older parts of Toronto, there are few places a cannabis store could actually be sited. The two big exceptions are both former industrial areas: the Liberty Street neighbourhood in the west end and the former stockyards at St. Clair and Weston Road.
The map is full of smaller local quirks. Under a 500-metre radius, a stretch of Dupont Street between Christie and Bathurst streets could possibly be home to a cannabis store, but only on the north side of the street. But there’s already a beer store on that stretch – will that be a problem? We don’t yet know.
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In Etobicoke and Scarborough, there are a few more possibilities. An industrial part of Rexdale could be fine, along with an industrial area in Long Branch. In Scarborough, parts of the Golden Mile shopping area would be good to go (but not all of it), along with some of Agincourt.
In Quebec, cannabis stores must be at least 250 metres from schools, except in Montreal, where rules dictate 150 metres. Manitoba leaves it up to local governments, but suggests a buffer of 150 to 300 metres. Alberta will keep them at least 100 metres away from schools and hospitals.
“These are retail stores that are going to be hyper-regulated,” said University of British Columbia post-doctoral student Jenna Valleriani.
“Minors can’t even enter these stores.”
“I probably wouldn’t want one beside an elementary school, more for optics rather than practical harms. There’s a bit of hysteria around these stores.”
We asked the PCs what they had in mind for a radius, and how they planned to fit stores around it.
“Ontario is currently consulting with municipalities and other key stakeholders on the development of a private retail store model, including store locations,” Ministry of the Attorney General spokesperson Brian Gray responded in an e-mail.
Valleriani expects the Ontario PCs will have to back down on the issue, if there are ever going to be any cannabis stores in cities.
“There are so many schools,” Valleriani said. “It doesn’t really seem like a practical solution, especially when you start looking at where these stores can actually go.”
“If they get up to 500 metres, they’re going to find very quickly that there aren’t any available retail spaces.”
Today, schools may limit where cannabis stores can go; tomorrow, it might work the other way around.
What if a new school — an alternative school, say, or a small private school — wants to start up within 500 metres of a cannabis store? It’s easy to imagine a licenced producer with a profitable business and deep pockets putting serious legal muscle into stopping it from opening.
With a smaller radius, it becomes far easier to site stores. Here is what Toronto’s map would look like under Alberta’s 100-metre rule.
Under the Alberta rules (100m radius around schools)
In some ways, school radiuses are a proxy decision for whether cannabis stores should exist in residential neighbourhoods. The larger the radius, the more difficult it becomes, and cannabis retail ends up in suburban plazas far from homes.
With small radiuses, it can be part of neighbourhood-level retail – along with stores selling alcohol and tobacco, which have been there for years.
Is that a good thing? The answer likely depends on whether you see marijuana legalization itself as a good thing.