While the legal market for recreational cannabis remains immature, retail stores and potential negative health impacts are concentrating in low-income areas, according to research led by the University of Ottawa.
Two studies, two years apart found there are now twice as many cannabis stores in low-income neighbourhoods compared to high-income neighbourhoods, which could lead to disparities in cannabis use and health impacts.
Differences between provinces that employ a private retail model and those that employ a public model means that access to cannabis still varies widely across Canada, they said.
Provinces that pursued a private model have seen greater store growth, more retail outlets and longer hours as a result.
“While access to the recreational cannabis retail market has increased following legalization, there is substantial variation in access between jurisdictions…,” they wrote.
Two years after legalization in October 2018, there were 1,182 legal cannabis stores open across the country, about 3.7 stores per 100,000.
Quebec had the lowest number of stores per capita at 0.6 per 100,000 people aged 15 and older. Ontario was second at 1.6 stores per 100,000. By contrast, Alberta and Yukon had 14.3 stores per 100,000 people, or about 24 times more access.
Ontario subsequently moved to a private retail model in 2019, with the goal to further eliminate the illegal market. That has changed the landscape dramatically.
To date, 1,600 applications for Retail Operator Licenses have been received in Ontario and at least 1,200 issued. Nearly 1,000 of those stores are already open for business, by far the most of any province or territory.
“A lot of studies to date have looked at cannabis use in the year following legalization, not seen very dramatic changes, and concluded that legalization really doesn’t have much of an impact on cannabis use and related health outcomes,” Dr. Daniel Myran, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa Department of Family Medicine, told EurekAlert!, “What our data suggests is that we should not really have expected major changes right after legalization because of market immaturity.
“I anticipate that it’s only now that the market is taking off that we will see the potential impacts of legalization on cannabis use and related health outcomes,” he added.
At the time of legalization, among the provinces and territories, five chose a government model for cannabis shops, five chose a private model, two chose a hybrid model. All allowed online sales.
The first study on the heels of legalization found that within a month there were twice as many stores in the country’s poorest postal codes than in the wealthiest. Two years later that ratio has not changed.