"I'm so surprised," said no one ever.
On a road trip from Florida to San Diego and up the Pacific coast to British Columbia, Chris Cardozo made a pit stop in Venice Beach, California, where he purchased a licence to buy marijuana from dispensaries. From there, the Toronto-bound Cardozo stopped at dispensaries all along the way. “This is how it should be everywhere,” he thought. “This is awesome.”
Cardozo saw the weed industry like Mark Zuckerberg saw the internet: it was prosperous. He needed to get his foot in—and Toronto was the next mecca.
With help from business partners, Cardozo opened his own dispensary in Kensington Market: Toronto Holistic Cannabinoids, or THC (the acronym was intentional). Sitting on the corner of Baldwin Street and Kensington Avenue, THC was the second dispensary in the Market when it opened in July 2015. Now, almost a year later, there are 10 others.
The Market, Cardozo predicts, is well on its way to becoming Toronto’s hub for medicinal marijuana. “I don’t think these shops are going anywhere,” he says.
The Kensington Business Improvement Area is aware of the rise of dispensaries in the Market. They’ve seen trends before with vintage clothing stores, coffee houses, and bar-restaurants—but nothing as contentious as dispensaries. BIA chair and Market business owner Mike Shepherd says the increase in the shops is on the BIA’s list of concerns and it’s talked about at almost every meeting.
The BIA is mostly concerned that the dispensaries will create a saturated market area that drives rent prices up. “If it becomes too intensified, or too profitable for dispensaries to be open in this area, it will drive the rents up and push other businesses out, like the fruit and vegetable sellers,” Shepherd says. (This problem isn’t unique to dispensaries—any other type of business could conceivably do the same.)
Cardozo’s small shop has just enough room to fit a green-velvet love seat and an L-shaped glass case that holds any of the medicinal products you could dream of—from red velvet Indica cupcakes to a long list of “flowers,” the shop’s name for bud. A giant Presa Canario named Bruce greets customers from behind the glass case. “He’s our store mascot and security guard,” Cardozo tells me.
By comparison, however, THC is a relative newcomer to the neighbourhood. Abi Roach owns a marijuana lounge in Kensington Market, and has been involved in the BIA since it was formed in 2009. Since opening her “cannabiz” selling marijuana paraphernalia 16 years ago, she’s been passionate about the drug and has become more active in the politics surrounding it. “I’ve literally been serving potheads since I was 14 years old,” she says. “The only reason why drugs are a problem and are disgraced upon in the city is because they’re illegal.”
A 2016 survey, conducted by Nanos Research, found that 39 per cent of Canadians support the legalization of marijuana. The survey was comprised of 1,000 Canadians, and makes Roach’s opinion on legalization the majority vote.
As a Market business owner, Roach has found that the new dispensaries in the market are helping to clean up the neighbourhood as well as help patients. “If you go down to the park right now, usually on a sunny day like today, the park is crawling with dealers, crawling. But if you walk by there now [there is] nobody. They’re out of business.”
Sylvia Lassam has lived in the market for 10 years, and sees a similar pattern in the area. “When I first moved to the market…you’d see like a really expensive Mercedes SUV with black windows parked on the corner. I don’t see as much of that around [anymore].” Lassam can’t remember any suspicious behaviour this year but she doesn’t walk through Bellevue Square everyday.
Lassam, who is part of the Kensington Market Historical Society, also understands the concerns from the BIA. “Every time you turn around, there is another one,” she says. “One of the things about Kensington Market is that it has always been cheap. It is a little incubator of interesting businesses because it is one of the few places where somebody who is 25 years old, who is willing to work really hard, and has a good idea can start a business. And it has always been like that.”
Pouria Lofti is a Kensington business owner and resident. As a BIA chair member, he’s heard complaints from people in the community about the number of dispensaries in the market. “The neighbourhood can’t support, you know, eight or 12 dispensaries in the market,” he says. Lofti doesn’t believe Kensington will become the next hub for medical marijuana because he too has seen spurs of stores open and then close shortly after because they can’t all compete with each other. “I think sooner or later some of them will close up.”
Cardozo begs to differ. As a new business, THC is growing, with 600 to 700 returning patients, and Cardozo says he helps new patients every day (his youngest is just seven years old). Seeing patients find relief with the use of his medicinal marijuana, he says, make the judgmental stares from passersby seem trivial.
Although Cardozo’s shop is operating legally, by requiring patients to provide a prescription signed by a licensed physician, he fears that not everyone in the neighbourhood is. “Right now it’s frustrating watching all of these people taking advantage of [customers]. You’re walking around the streets and you’re seeing these shops and cops aren’t doing anything, so you think it’s okay,” he says.
The Liberal government has vowed to introduce marijuana legalization legislation by 2017, though regulations have yet to be determined. Where dispensaries fit in is still up in the air. But Cardozo insists he’ll stay put, set on serving the Kensington Market crowd for as long as he can. “I plan on being here forever,” he says confidently.