When the Ontario Cannabis Store announced the first four locations of its recreational marijuana retail outlets last week, it was the Toronto location that caused the biggest commotion: there are schools nearby and other places where kids hang out. Premier Kathleen Wynne, who said she was caught off guard, ordered the OCS to consult with school boards when deciding on locations in future.
The planned location of Kingston’s OCS store — between two furniture stores in a suburban strip mall — has provoked a more muted response. (When the CBC went looking for community reaction, it came up with a burrito restaurant owner who is hoping the store will be good for business. The hope seems realistic.) After all, what harm can it do, all the way out there?
But that thinking may turn out to be entirely backwards, given how little we actually know about the impacts of selling recreational cannabis to the general public. Some research suggests we may actually do more harm than good if we push pot shops away from dense urban neighbourhoods into the car-dominated hinterlands: there’s a chance that the store near the school won’t do anyone any harm, while the one in the plaza may pose a danger to its community.
In coming up with the new locations, the LCBO – which will operate the new OCS stores — took what it calls a “flexible” approach: it consulted with municipalities and considered existing guidelines for locating liquor outlets. For example, the LCBO avoids opening locations that are within 200 metres of any school; where there are exceptions to this policy, the stores comply with liquor licensing laws by not having alcohol advertising on their exteriors. (Of course, the proposed Toronto OCS store is some 450 metres away from Blantyre Public School, and it was still controversial.)
The LCBO, though, hasn’t based these rules and considerations on empirical evidence. Instead, it seems to be relying on reasoning that just kind of sounds right.
Legal cannabis retailing is a new concept, and we know pretty much nothing about how to proceed in a responsible fashion. The policies that feel the safest or strictest might not actually be the ones that can most effectively reduce problems caused by drug use.
Sure, the Toronto scenario might feel riskier — won’t someone think of the children (etc., etc.)? But as long as employees ask for ID, where is the actual harm? Those under 19 won’t even be allowed to set foot in the new cannabis stores: everyone will get carded at the door.
And there is evidence suggesting it might be dangerous to put cannabis outlets in isolated locations, as we’re about to do in Kingston. Medical researcher Tenaya Marie Sunbury has found that people were less likely to drink and drive in parts of Michigan with a higher density of places to purchase alcohol, possibly because fewer drivers were tempted to get behind the wheel drunk when they could just walk to a liquor store. Economist Patrick McCarthy has examined DUI collision records and local alcohol retail laws in California and determined that increasing the density of retail outlets actually boosts highway safety.
On the other hand, there are studies that show precisely the opposite — namely, that increased density of alcohol retail outlets increases drunk driving. Researchers often refer to such conflicting results before noting that more work needs to be done. Perhaps a major impartial study, on a scale that only a provincial government could afford, would help clarify the matter.
The point is that we don’t know how the location of alcohol and cannabis stores will affect impaired-driving rates. For all we know, the LCBO could be making a grave error by scattering the new OCS stores thinly and widely (and gradually) across the landscape, because customers — in the Kingston area, for instance — might be more likely to drive stoned or drunk in order to reach them.
Still, it’s only natural that there will be community kerfuffles over cannabis stores close to residential areas. People don’t want to see one in their backyard, especially if they have children in that backyard —understandably so, as recent research has shown that exposure to cannabis can stunt the development of young brains.
Alcohol and drug use can cause serious harm, so let’s treat them as issues worthy of serious study. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but a rigorous, fact-based approach might help settle the issue of where to locate our cannabis stores — and end up saving lives.
CORRECTION April 20, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the rules governing where LCBO stores can be located in Ontario. TVO has updated the article, and regrets the error.
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