Ontario won't allow cannabis cafes — for now — as health officials raise concerns
Consultation documents show health officials have serious concerns
There's a sharp divide between health officials and business groups on whether or not the Ford government should allow cannabis lounges and cafes, and broaden the number of places pot can be sold.
CBC Toronto obtained the results of the government's consultation — conducted earlier this year before COVID-19 forced the province to declare a state of emergency — through a freedom of information request. You can read all 850 pages of feedback at the bottom of this story.
The province is considering two major changes to the current cannabis landscape:
- Whether or not it should allow the sale of cannabis for people to use in lounges and cafes.
- And whether or not to allow special occasion permits (SOPs) for cannabis, potentially allowing for it to be sold at places like festivals.
But for now, the government isn't making any changes.
Jenessa Crognali, a spokesperson for Ontario's attorney general, issued an email statement saying: "No changes to the cannabis framework are expected at this time nor is there a current timeframe for any additional changes that may be informed by this feedback."
Crognali confirmed the government will consider the consultation results in the future.
Ford's government has stated its ultimate goal for cannabis is an open market, but at this point it continues to control all legal sales through the Ontario Cannabis Store, which has reported an uptick in online purchases during the pandemic.
However, allowing cannabis cafes — like those seen in places like Amsterdam — is something no Canadian province has done, and it's unclear how it would even work with the province's stated pledge not to change its Smoke-Free Ontario Act.
Ontario health, school officials criticize plan
The Ford government was told by local and regional medical officers of health across the province it should not allow cannabis lounges or make the drug easier to get than it is now.
The Durham Region Health Department, for example, is staunchly opposed. If the province goes ahead with the changes, it wants the power to pass bylaws to ban lounges from ever opening.
"From a public health approach, it becomes concerning when the legalization model changes to a private cannabis retail model with profit being the key driver for expanding business opportunities," the department stated in its filing.
The health experts' concern is simple: more access to cannabis will lead to more cannabis-related harm.
That includes issues like impaired driving, public intoxication and other health risks. Multiple organizations, including Ontario Health (which subsumed Cancer Care Ontario), warn that more research on cannabis is needed before the public has a full picture of its risks.
Numerous people in public health also sounded the alarm about the potential mixing of cannabis and alcohol, which can lead to dangerous levels of intoxication.
School directors and boards also objected to the plan, warning loosening the regulations currently in place could lead to more youth using cannabis.
Businesses groups like the idea of an expanded market
However, business groups are lobbying hard on the other side. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, for example, told the government that "Ontario's legal cannabis market is not meeting its full potential."
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce echoed that, adding that in the near future more people will want to consume cannabis in public, social spaces, just like alcohol is consumed.
Niagara College, which has a commercial cannabis production program, said if the government doesn't allow lounges and put some strict rules in place, others will fill the void.
"Going in the other direction — NOT facilitating — one runs the risk of underground lounges and cafes proliferating in non-ideal or unsafe conditions," the college said in its submission.
Restaurants Canada, an association representing eateries ranging from coffee shops to caterers, introduced another wrinkle — the potential for unfair competition.
If cannabis is going to be served, said James Rilett, the organization's central region vice-president, it should happen in existing establishments, rather than starting new cannabis cafes.
"If you had a cannabis lounge through the [provincial cannabis] retailer, then obviously they'd start selling food products, they'd start selling coffee and teas, and, you know, all of the sudden we have a competitor that's operating with an advantage."
A mixed response from the public
Many voiced support for cannabis lounges, suggesting they could be a place to unwind — like bars, but for people who prefer weed to alcohol. Some asked why people can smoke in public, potentially around children, but not in private spaces around consenting adults.
There's also a suggestion it would be a better and safer way for people to be introduced to cannabis.
However, allowing lounges would likely require changing the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which bans smoking and vaping in any enclosed workplace or public place, as well as on the patio of any bar or restaurant. From the outset, the government said it wouldn't change the act.
Those who wrote in against lounges suggest they'd be a slippery slope to letting people smoke tobacco in bars and restaurants, also citing concerns about the health of those working long shifts in the cafes.
Those opposed to increasing cannabis access at festivals said families and non-smokers who attend those events shouldn't be subjected to the smell and second-hand smoke.
Others sat in the middle ground. Their message to the government: regulate cannabis like you regulate tobacco.
OCS doing better with status quo
Ontario's legal cannabis rollout has faced criticism from day one, with many warning a lack of bricks-and-mortar stores has allowed the black market to flourish. The Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) actually lost money during its first year of operation, but appears to be doing better now — particularly during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Daffyd Roderick, the director of communications for the OCS, said it's now averaging between 29,000 and 30,000 orders per week.
"Each day of the week is different but we've been averaging 4,200 orders per day," Roderick said in an email. "That is above pre-COVID levels, which was around 2,500 per day."
You can see the entire consultation results for yourself in the PDF below:
With files from Nicole Brockbank and Nicole Ireland