Despite fierce opposition from neighbourhood groups and residents, Jason Krulicki will be opening One Plant dispensary in Kensington Market this spring.
Renovations will soon begin to transform the former Zimmerman’s Fairland grocery store at 241 Augusta into a massive new pot shop, the first legal dispensary in the bohemian neighbourhood.
The store has been dogged by controversy since its location was announced in November 2019.
Across social media, residents expressed their concerns over its size, its proximity to houses and elementary schools and its connection to former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino. During a mandatory two-week public notice period, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, the governing body that oversees cannabis store licensing, received over 200 submissions opposing the location.
Even so, AGCO approved One Plant’s retail operator licence in late January.
Ahead of receiving final AGCO approval – that’ll come in the week or so before the opening date – Krulicki says he’s been spending as much time as he can in Kensington, meeting with businesses and neighbourhood groups, and “putting out all these fires.”
On February 6, he received the city building permits to start renovating the shop and commissioned street artist Elixir to brand the hoarding out front.
Over the past two decades, Kensington Market has fought off Starbucks, Walmart and Nike, predatory landlords and even a bar in the very location One Plant now occupies.
But this controversy represents a bigger issue unfolding in a neighbourhood in the midst of an identity crisis: the confluence of the corporatization of weed and the forces of gentrification.
Krulicki decided to enter the cannabis store lottery because it was “a unique opportunity to become a business owner in a really exciting space.” For the past three years, he’s sold advertising for Postmedia, including the Post’s cannabis vertical The Growth Op, but this is the first time he’s working hands-on with weed.
To run the shop, he hired the California-based dispensary brand One Plant. It was formed in 2008 as a joint venture between the Canadian licensed producer (LP) Aleafia Health and the Serruya Family, which owns Yogen Früz and Second Cup. Aleafia owns a 9.9 per cent stake in One Plant, which was the maximum stake LPs could have in a retail affiliation.
Fantino, who has a long history of opposing cannabis legalization, is the chair of Aleafia’s board of directors. While OPP Commissioner, Fantino established a “marijuana eradication program” to crack down on grow ops, claiming they encouraged the sale of guns, cocaine and heroin. He’s likened decriminalizing weed to decriminalizing murder, and as recently as 2015, said legal weed would be a boon for organized crime.
Krulicki insists there’s been a lot of misinformation circulating around the ownership of the dispensary. Fantino is not the owner of the dispensary.
“One Plant will run the retail operations, while I’ll maintain ownership of the store,” he says. “And ultimately have control over all aspects of the business.”
Krulicki says he was unaware of the Fantino connection when he decided to work with One Plant, adding the dispensary is not obligated to carry any Aleafia product and doesn’t intend to, at least initially.
Beyond the corporate ties, many residents are also worried about how a dispensary of that size would impact the community.
“[The backlash] isn’t about having no cannabis stores in Kensington,” says Dominique Russell, a resident of Kensington for 20 years and the founder of Friends of Kensington Market. “There were a lot of concerns about how the location intersects with the residential side. I don’t know how many people would want to live next door to a huge dispensary.”
The location itself has a contentious history. At nearly 5,000 square feet, it’s been vacant since the Zimmerman’s Fairland grocery store closed in 2016. When the building’s previous leaseholder tried to open a music-themed bar called Liquor Donuts there in 2018, they were met with a huge backlash from the community and the area’s city councillor at the time, Joe Cressy. The space also has prohibitively high rents. A MLS listing for the property in 2018 lists the rent at $20,000 a month.
When reviewing a retail location licence, the AGCO’s considerations are very rigid and narrow. The criteria must be related to “protecting public health and safety,” “protecting youth and restricting their access to cannabis” and “preventing illicit activities in relation to cannabis.”
Toronto cannabis lawyer Matt Maurer, who has worked with around 35 per cent of the province’s cannabis retail lottery winners, says he hasn’t heard of the AGCO rejecting any of the locations.
“A common thread in many of the public notice responses is that people are concerned that having a cannabis store will change the makeup or character of the neighbourhood, so they don’t want it anywhere near them for fear it’s going to change how things currently are,” says Maurer. “But that isn’t a valid criticism to be considered by the registrar.”
Krulicki hopes to open his dispensary by late March or early April. He still needs to get the final retail authorization from the AGCO, which usually comes closer to the opening date, and involves ensuring the space is compliant with security, storage, traffic flow and other regulations.
“It’s important to me to maintain the look and feel of the current structure as there is so much history there,” says Krulicki. “With the owner’s permission, we even want to keep the iconic Fairland sign on the roof.”
Since announcing the location last year, Krulicki says he’s met with community groups like the Kensington Market BIA, Friends of Kensington Market and the Kensington Market Action Committee to address their concerns. He’s also set up a charity that will support the local St. Stephen’s Community House and is currently working with Lift & Co to co-sponsor a program to help vulnerable people re-enter the job market by sponsoring CannSell certifications. CannSell is required training for Ontario cannabis retail store employees.
“It’s really important for me to be able to contribute to the community because it’s such a unique and sensitive community,” says Krulicki. “That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s why I spend almost every day in the market, meeting the business owners and community members and addressing all of their concerns.”
In addition to the shop’s size and its Fantino connection, many residents are upset One Plant would be located across from Hot Box, the head shop and former consumption lounge opened by long-time cannabis activist Abi Roach in 2000.
Roach says she spent her life savings preparing to apply for an operator’s licence, only for Doug Ford’s provincial government to change to the lottery system at the last minute. She applied for the lottery twice, but was not selected either time. (In December 2019, the AGCO announced it would scrap the lottery and go back to the original system.)
“Prior to the lottery announcement, we set up two stores, got our trademarks, our security plans, prepaid our lawyers and a consulting firm to do our licence,” says Roach. “It took a lot pivoting to manoeuvre through legalization, and we lost all of that.”
Roach says she also received emails from lawyers of lottery winners “offering me a chance to [use] their licence for millions of dollars.
“The whole rollout has been disgusting,” says Roach. “[Corporations] are profiting off the fact that I did all this work for 20 years and they didn’t have to do anything.”
In January, Roach sold the Hot Box brand to the Friendly Stranger, another veteran in Toronto’s cannabis scene, and has taken a job at the Ontario Cannabis Store.
As for the Hot Box, Friendly Stranger Holdings Corp. plans to keep the location as is for now.
“We’re not going to mess with it too much,” says James Jesty, Friendly Stranger Holdings Corp.’s president. “We’re just looking to take it to the next level, expand it and grow it.”
One Plant currently has three other dispensaries open in Stouffville, Ajax and Barrie, with an additional location planned for Ottawa.
It’s a part of a bigger trend of dispensary chains and large producers partnering with lottery winners to edge their way into the retail market. If all the pending applications are approved by the AGCO, Tokyo Smoke will have 10 shops in Ontario, the Friendly Stranger will have six, Canna Cabana will have three and Hunny Pot Cannabis Co will have two.
Russell says that Friends of Kensington Market has met with Krulicki, but she still has concerns over how the dispensary will affect the neighbourhood.
“It’s not that we’re giving it a stamp of approval,” says Russell. “We’re limited in what we can do, but we can work with the owner and make sure that the security in the store itself doesn’t harm the atmosphere of the market and doesn’t have an impact on people who might be marginalized but feel at home in Kensington.”
In late 2019 when the news first broke about Fantino and One Plant, there were calls on social media to boycott the shop. It’s too early to tell whether those boycotts will come to fruition, but for many in the cannabis community, the store’s corporate ties are a sticking point.
Although Kensington was able to hold off corporate interests for a long time, rising rents and astronomical property taxes are bringing change to the neighbourhood. In an ironic twist, a cannabis dispensary could set a new precedent.
“I’ve seen a lot of change in the market, and the market that I’ve loved is different than the market my kids love. But the one constant has been the relationship between store owners and the people who live here,” says Russell. “Gentrification, corporatization and marijuana – who would have ever thought?”