Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

Six months in, provinces with private cannabis sales offer better access to legal cannabis

Canadian jurisdictions with private cannabis stores, like Manitoba, had more cannabis stores per capita six months after legalization than jurisdictions with government-operated cannabis stores only. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press)

Canadian jurisdictions with private cannabis stores, like Manitoba, had more cannabis stores per capita six months after legalization than jurisdictions with government-operated cannabis stores only. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press)

New research tracking legal cannabis stores in Canada illustrates how two of the federal government's key legalization objectives — protecting public health and eliminating the black market for cannabis — might sometimes be at odds.

The paper was written by a group of Ottawa physicians, and published in the journal CMAJ Open. The researchers examined the differences between jurisdictions with privately operated bricks-and-mortar cannabis stores only (Alberta, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Ontario), with government-run stores only (New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec) and in "hybrid" jurisdictions with both public and private stores (British Columbia and Yukon Territory).

Between April 29 and May 17 of this year, the researchers counted a total of 260 cannabis stores across Canada. The vast majority were in provinces that allow private-sector cannabis sales, which had 49 per cent more cannabis stores per capita than jurisdictions with only government stores. Cannabis stores in private-only and hybrid jurisdictions were also open 9.2 hours a week longer, on average, than stores in jurisdictions with government-only cannabis sales. 

In other words, it's easier to access legal cannabis in Canadian jurisdictions that allow private-sector bricks-and-mortar cannabis sales. Is that good news or bad news? As the authors wrote, the answer depends on what Canada is trying to achieve with cannabis legalization.

"Policy-makers primarily concerned with eliminating the illicit cannabis market could perceive increased physical access in private and hybrid retail systems as a marker of success for these systems," wrote the authors.

But governments worried more about public health "may be concerned that cannabis will follow similar patterns observed in the alcohol and tobacco control literature, where increased access to alcohol and tobacco retail is associated with higher use and subsequent harms." (Whether or not increased access to cannabis retail leads to more cannabis use and more harms to society is "currently unknown," the authors said, noting that cannabis "has important differences from alcohol and tobacco" but is still a mood-altering substance with addictive potential.)

The researchers also investigated the distance between legal cannabis stores and schools, as well as the relationship between cannabis store locations and local income levels.

Cannabis stores in jurisdictions with private sales were located slightly closer to primary and secondary schools than stores in jurisdictions with government-only sales, and low-income areas tended to have more cannabis stores per capita of either type  — private or government operated — than high-income areas. The authors note, however, that this finding could be explained by a variety of factors, including "lower levels of rent or property tax, higher expected market demand for cannabis and commercial zoning bylaws that may exclude stores from higher-income neighbourhoods."

It's too early to tell whether any of these early post-legalization cannabis retail trends "are related to health-associated harms from cannabis use," according to the authors — but for now, they wrote, Canadians should consider "whether these emerging trends reflect the desired balance between the dual goals of cannabis legalization: eliminating the illicit cannabis market and preventing youth from accessing cannabis."


New on The Leaf

  • Tallying the tokers: 4.9 million Canadians used cannabis in the second quarter of 2019, Statistics Canada reports.
  • No inspecting the produce: Why can't Canadians see the bud they want to buy, before they buy it?
  • Still potent after all these years: What happens to the THC in cannabis during long-term storage?

Elsewhere on the Weed Wide Web

  • Stuck on store shelves: Tweed-brand cannabis oils and gel capsules are selling poorly at legal cannabis stores across Canada, reports the Financial Post.
  • Opaque in Ontario: The government-operated Ontario Cannabis Store lacks transparency, argues business professor Michael Armstrong.
  • In line for licences: Health Canada is still "scrambling" to keep up with applications for cannabis research licences, reports Science Magazine.

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