Etobicoke and large portions of North York, Scarborough shut out from cannabis store lottery

For residents in Etobicoke and North York as well as a large portion of Scarborough, they won’t be able to buy cannabis at a store in their communities if licences are granted as-is under the Ontario government’s latest lottery.

“If these lottery winners are all ultimately approved for licences, we will have seven stores in Toronto that are on Queen Street alone,” Caryma Sa’d, a lawyer who specializes in cannabis laws, told Global News Wednesday evening.

“The way that it’s playing out in practice, like many of us predicted, is not going to result in fair, equitable, safe, dignified access, and if we want to make a dent in the so-called ‘black’ or underground markets this isn’t going to cut it.”

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) announced the winners of 42 cannabis retail store licences on Wednesday. Another eight stores will be located on First Nations reserves and are being approved through a separate process that is currently underway. The second round of licences comes after an initial round in January saw 25 store locations approved across Ontario. Five of those locations ultimately opened up in downtown Toronto.

Unlike the first lottery for 25 stores, applicants in the latest draw had to show they had secured retail space that could be used as a store if they were selected, and that they had enough capital — $250,000 on-hand — to open it. Those selected now have until Aug. 28 to pay licensing fees and provide a letter of credit for an additional $50,000 to the regulator.

In total, the AGCO said 4,864 applicants submitted an expression of interest for the 42 licences across Ontario announced on Wednesday. In Toronto, 1,240 applicants vied for 13 licences.

However, only two of the 13 locations approved are outside of the old Toronto and East York boundaries — one on Dufferin Street in York and one at the southwest edge of Scarborough on Gerrard Street East. If all of the applications are approved as listed, there will be no physical cannabis retail stores in Etobicoke and North York.

But there are five possible locations on a Toronto wait list that could receive a licence if one or more of the selected applicants do not get approved by the AGCO. Two of those locations on the wait list are in North York and a third is in York. The remaining two are near downtown.

“If someone from Etobicoke has to take two buses and the subway to get to Toronto to access the store, that’s not really fair or dignified access,” Sa’d said, adding the lottery system in place for new locations is “not ideal.”

“It’s a function of a lottery system where we don’t know who’s ultimately going to be successful and so there’s a very high risk of clustering, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve seen … it’s very problematic.”

Residents currently can order cannabis products online through the provincial government’s Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) website. But Sa’d noted that can be problematic for many, including those who don’t have credit cards or those who may have other access difficulties.

“There are people who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to use the online OCS system and these individuals need brick-and-mortar access,” she said.

“[They] maybe don’t have a fixed address, maybe don’t have computer access or literacy, or if they do have a fixed address aren’t able to receive the product.”

Global News contacted the AGCO about the application process and a spokesperson said the 13 applicants approved need to now apply for retail operator licences and retail store authorizations.

“The AGCO will only licence applicants who meet all legal and regulatory requirements so their selection in the lottery is simply the first step,” communications director Phil Serruya told Global News in a statement.

“Applications, which included the proposed store locations, were randomly selected in the lottery process.”

Serruya said the distribution of stores in Toronto and Ontario falls under a regulation approved by the provincial government.

When asked by Global News about the lack of stores in Etobicoke and other communities across Toronto, a spokesperson for Attorney General Doug Downey issued a short statement saying the government “is working with the AGCO and Ontario Cannabis Store to return to our original plan to allocate retail store licenses based on market demand.”

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