At Thanksgiving dinner, while his older relatives were sipping beer and wine, John Borowski pulled out a Creamsicle-flavoured cannabis drink.
And no one batted an eye.
The 40-year-old Sudburian, who first tried marijuana when he was 12, doesn’t believe that would have happened five years ago.
“The world has changed dramatically,” said Borowski.
“Because we’re talking about huge generation gaps.”
Featured VideoSudbury cannabis user on what it’s been like to buy legal weed the last five years
Borowski was at first skeptical of the government-regulated dispensaries, which didn’t come to Ontario until the spring of 2019, but now he is a regular customer and has stopped buying on the black market, where he says he was paying twice as much for cannabis.
“The product is cheaper. I think that’s so cool and there’s a variety and there’s sales,” he said.
“I think it’s working. I think it’s genius actually. And there’s more dispensaries than there are McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc.”
The number of dispensaries in northern Ontario has gone from six in 2020 to over 100 in 2023. Ontario Cannabis Store, which supplies all the provincially-regulated pot shops, says 142 stores in the north were selling its products this year.
And cannabis sales in northern Ontario have gone from $15 million in 2020 to $116 million during just the first eight months of 2023.
“Definitely way more complicated marketplace than five years ago,” said Eugene Konarev, the CEO of Highlife, which had the first licensed dispensary in northern Ontario back in 2019.
“The competition is extremely fierce.”
Highlife in Sudbury was the first cannabis store licensed to open in northern Ontario in 2019. It now has 16 stores across the province, including six in the north. (Erik White/CBC )
Highlife has gone from that one store in New Sudbury to 16 across the province, including six in the north.
Konarev says because of the crowded marketplace, most are pricing their products down to compete and the restrictions on advertising outside of the store means trying to get customers already coming in to spend more.
He says research shows that about 20 per cent of the population are regular cannabis users that spend about $100 per month and flower cannabis still greatly outsells edibles and concentrates.
One of the great goals of legalization was to snuff out the illegal marijuana trade, but Konarev says limits on THC in gummies and other edibles is still sending customers to the black market or First Nations dispensaries that don’t have to follow provincial laws.
Five years ago, many getting into the weed industry were counting on large numbers of new users now more comfortable to try a legal product, but Konarev says the advertising restrictions make it tough to reach them.
“Simply because they don’t know what to try. If we were allowed to market outside there would probably be more new users who would try legal cannabis,” he said.
“The core users, both legal and black market cannabis, the core is still the same after five years. I don’t think we’ve penetrated too much outside of the core.”
Eugene Konarev from Highlife says only a fraction of their business is gummies and he believes the THC limits set by the government are sending many buyers to the black market or First Nations dispensaries. (Craig Chivers/CBC News)
Konarev says there are signs of “de-saturation” with some pot shops closing in downtown Toronto and other big cities, as well as corporate consolidation of dispensary chains in Alberta, but he says “we’re not really in a place where we can predict too far ahead.”
Five years since legalization, there is growing research pointing to increased addiction rates and visits to hospital emergency rooms for cannabis poisoning, withdrawal symptoms, psychosis and other related problems.
“We need to make sure that we’re not pushing it on people,” said Robert Schwartz, who teaches in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
Cannabis dispensaries, like this one in the Hanmer area of Greater Sudbury, are often brightly and creatively decorated, which one public health expert thinks ‘glamorizes and normalizes’ pot. (Erik White/CBC)
“That it’s not becoming so socially acceptable to use cannabis that people are using it daily or almost daily.”
Schwartz says the research shows that one in five are likely to develop some kind of dependency or addiction to cannabis and would like to see greater restrictions on how it is sold, including dispensaries that look like “fancy wine shops” which “glamorizes and normalizes” cannabis use.
However he thinks that will be a tough sell for provincial politicians.
“It will be very difficult, I would suggest, for any political party to restrict cannabis sales more than exists today. I think that’s what needs to happen,” said Schwartz.
“It’s a nuanced situation. Because for most people, they are going to those cannabis shops, buying reasonable amounts and using it occasionally. For some people, it’s a huge issue.”
Cannabis has now been legal in Canada for five years. And here in northern Ontario, new pot shops keep opening, sales are climbing, but so are signs of addiction. Read More