In the year leading up to recreational cannabis legalization, Ontario has experienced a fair share of organizational chaos. Plans for a government-run monopoly were upended by the provincial election in June, with Premier Doug Ford’s newly elected Progressive Conservative government scrapping the Liberals’ framework in favour of a privatized retail model.
At the end of September, three weeks out from legalization, the PCs released their plans: There will be no cap on the number of retail licenses granted, but licensed producers are limited to owning one store each in Ontario. Bricks-and-mortar stores won’t materialize until April 2019, but the government-run Ontario Cannabis Store website will be open for business and taking orders on Oct. 17.
The biggest implication for Canada’s most populous province: While orders can be placed, no one will actually have any legal recreational product in hand on day one (or day two, or day three…) of legalization.
History of cannabis in Ontario
A number of major court rulings challenging the prohibition on medical cannabis have come through the Ontario Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Appeal, and the Ontario Superior Court.
Located at Osgoode Hall in Toronto’s trendy Queen St. West neighbourhood, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in the 2000 case R v. Parker that cannabis prohibition is unconstitutional because the law failed to provide an exemption for Canadians who use pot for medical purposes. This led to the implementation of Canada’s first medical cannabis program, the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), later replacedby the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) in 2016. A number of other cases in Ontario, including R. v. Mernagh (note: the author was the respondent in this case), R. v. J.P. and R v. Longhave challenged the constitutionality of prohibiting possession, growing, and access to medical cannabis.
Cannabis compassion clubs, the forebearers to dispensaries, have deep roots in Canada’s largest city. Two of Canada’s oldest clubs still exist in Toronto: Cannabis As Living Medicine (founded by Neev Tapiero in 1996) and the Toronto Compassion Centre (founded by Warren Hitzig in 1997), both serving thousands of members after surviving police raids.
Ontario is also home to Canada’s first and longest running cannabis lounge — the Hotbox Cafe, also called the Hotbox Lounge — started by Abi Roach in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood.
Like most major cities across Canada, Ontario hosts a slew of 4/20 smokeouts, including packed celebrations on the grounds of Parliament in Canada’s capital city. Every year, Toronto hosts the annual Global Marijuana March starting and ending at Queen’s Park, home to the provincial legislature. For the past several years, vendors have occupied the green space to sell their weedy wares sans permit.
Where to buy cannabis in Ontario
Starting Oct. 17, adults of legal age (19+) will be able to purchase recreational cannabis online through the Ontario Cannabis Store website. The government-run OCS will be the exclusive online cannabis retailer in the province and the sole product distributor for bricks-and-mortar retail stores. But packages can’t be dropped off and left unattended — customers will need to accept delivery in person and provide proof of age (similar to alcohol sales).
Physical retail stores are expected to open in April 2019, and store licensing will be overseen by Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. The provincial government won’t cap the number of retail licenses issued across the province, but municipalities can set concentration limits. As well, provincial regulation will set “buffer zones” between schools and cannabis retail outlets.
Municipalities will also have a one-time window to opt out of allowing cannabis stores in their jurisdictions until Jan. 22, 2019. Just north of Toronto, the mayors of Richmond Hill and Markham already announced their intentions to ban pot stores from their respective cities.
Illegal dispensaries have long operated on a whack-a-mole business model: When police raid and shut down one, another one pops up. Police have stepped up enforcement ahead of legalization, and anyone working in the illegal industry who hopes to pursue a legit retail license in the future must shut down their operations before Oct. 17. A criminal record stemming from charges under the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act won’t necessarily bar someone from obtaining a cannabis retail license, but contravening The Cannabis Act will. Ontario finance minister Vic Fedeli said at a press conference that “any engagement with organized crime, any record of providing youth cannabis, any of that would bar you from participating in the private cannabis market.”
Where to smoke weed in Ontario
Until recently, the proposed public consumption rules were pretty strict: cannabis use was to be limited to “private residences,” effectively banning smoking or vaping in all public spaces.
However, the recent legislation tabled by the ruling PC government proposes to align public consumption rules with the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, meaning cannabis can be smoked in the same public places tobacco is allowed (except vehicles and boats). Under the Act, smoking tobacco is not allowed within 20 metres of schools, playgrounds and publicly owned sports fields and surfaces (ie. swimming pools, splash pads, and basketball, tennis or volleyball courts), or within nine metres of a hospitals. Homeowners will be allowed to consume cannabis anywhere indoors or outdoors on their private property, but landlords and condo boards have the discretion to set rules for their properties.
The Ford government also halted changes to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act that were set to take effect July 1, which would have outlawed lounges where customers can smoke or vape medical cannabis indoors. The Act is currently under review. Until then, bring-your-own-cannabis lounges continue to serve adults who are 19+ with proper identification, such as Higher Limits in Windsor — billed as Canada’s largest cannabis lounge at 6,000 square feet. Enthusiasts have an opportunity in Toronto vapor lounge hop, and can do it in style in a weedy limo bus.
Everyone knows you’re from Ontario (or just generally Canadian) if you ask for a “half quarter” of an ounce. A half quarter is everyone else’s eighth. Some perspective: One ounce equals about 28 grams, which is just under the legal possession limit of 30 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent).