TORONTO — Ontario could have up to 1,000 private pot shops after recreational cannabis is legalized, the province's Progressive Conservatives said Thursday, significantly more stores than planned under the previous Liberal government.
While introducing legislation to create a regulatory regime for cannabis sales, the government said it expected a flood of applications from those looking to run the private stores that will open next April and noted that they would be vetted very carefully by the province's Alcohol and Gaming Commission.
"There will be, I'm sure, a lot of applications to the AGCO and they're going to have a lot of work in order to do the due diligence that's required," said Attorney General Caroline Mulroney. " I don't expect that all applications will be granted immediately."
There will be no caps on the number of stores when the retail model launches next spring, but government's legislation allows for flexibility when it comes to the concentration of stores in individual markets, the government said.
"We want to make sure that the market is not dominated by one or two parties," Mulroney said. "If municipalities and local residents feel that the concentration is too high or there are issues related to the store location or the particular applicant, they have an opportunity at that time to speak directly to that."
The Progressive Conservative plan for pot is a stark change from the Liberals' rules.
Under the previous regime, pot was to be sold in government-run stores and Ontarians would only have been able to consume it in private residences.
The new rules will see cannabis sold online by a government agency when it becomes legal Oct. 17, and in private stores next year. The legislation further allows cannabis to be smoked by those over 19 wherever the smoking of tobacco is permitted.
The Progressive Conservatives estimated that they will save $150 million by not opening 150 government-run stores expected under the Liberals by 2020.
The government did not say how much it will cost for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission to handle the increased work of vetting and approving licenses and inspecting hundreds of private pot shops.
The new rules have drawn a range of reactions.
David Clement, the Toronto-based North American affairs manager for the Consumer Choice Center, a consumer advocacy group, said the government's plan will help ensure those who can legally consume cannabis are able to access it.
The previous rules "disproportionately impacted low-income consumers" by barring them from consuming cannabis outdoors and potentially in their home if it was banned by a landlord or condo board, he said.
"If you prohibit that public consumption, you have this divide between home owners and renters and we would essentially create a scenario where it would be legalization for middle-class or upper-middle-class consumers and prohibition for low-income consumers," he said.
Others, however, were concerned about the changes.
The province's opposition parties said the government's plan left many questions unanswered, particularly when it comes to public safety.
"I don't know how you…protect young people and children particularly from accessing marijuana if that's going to be the regime," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.
Green party leader Mike Schreiner said consumption laws for cannabis should be similar to those for alcohol.
"I'm a little concerned that we're looking at having people smoking cannabis potentially on a park bench or a playground with a bunch of kids playing around," he said.
Schreiner added that allowing municipalities to opt out of hosting pot shops — they have until late January to do so — could permit the black market to thrive in those communities.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Landlords Association said legalized recreational marijuana is likely to create a host of problems, predicting conflict between cannabis consumers and tenants exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke, safety issues for those who grow cannabis in their units and significant clean-up costs for landlords after a cannabis user vacates a unit.
William Blake, a member of the group, said landlords would like to see a streamlined dispute resolution process for cannabis-related issues at the province's landlord and tenant board.
"I need the province to help me be able to protect my tenants, keep my rents low and run a successful rental industry," he said.
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