By Victoria F.
Medical marijuana. A highly debated topic – no pun intended. Although there have been varying stances on the wants and needs for medical marijuana outlets in the city of Toronto, several have taken root, but most are being continuously shut down. Influenced by thehe steady increase of property values and property taxes, the implementation of laws regarding public nuisances, loitering, and obstreperous behavior, and the appearance of and demand for new (and more expensive) types of cuisine are all indicators of this slow but steady transformation of infrastructure and business (Billingham, 2015). Corroborated by our observations, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that the majority of medical marijuana outlets are located in the downtown core; central to the urban city dwellers. Also, although being located in the core of the city, they are often situated in the less desirable neighbourhoods; one of them being Moss Park.
The fact that there are more medical marijuana outlets – or dispensaries – in Moss Park and surrounding areas as opposed to Yorkville or Rosedale neighbourhoods, speaks to both the needs of the communities, as well as the appearance and reputation of the neighbourhood itself. Many users of these dispensary services in Moss Park may indeed have medical needs to be addressed, ranging from arthritis to glaucoma and everything in between. But, as we have also seen, many of these dispensaries work under the guise that they are set up for medicinal purposes, but in fact do not operate solely as so. This is thought, and shown, to attract a different group of people seeking its services. This could potentially be a huge contributing factor as to why these medical marijuana dispensaries are often centralized to the worse-off neighbourhoods of Toronto, outside of the gaze of the upper class. Here we can see how the landscape acts as “the sum of its morphological components … a material, physical form that wedded Nature to Culture … which could be read to define the values, needs, desires and levels of development of a people”; can mean both “site” and “sight” (Blomley, 1998). But, with this in mind, we should note that these spaces are social spaces in and of themselves. A flexible neighbourhood space is understood as one allowing various groups of inhabitants conflict-free and liberal use to pursue their individual lifestyles, but also a possibility of entering collective life (Kotus, 2009).
Upon looking at the sign posted on one of the medical marijuana dispensaries we came across through our investigation of the neighbourhood, we were greeted at the door and urged in. Feeling bad for taking pictures of their establishment, we followed to deepen our investigation into the social significance this dispensary has on the community of Moss Park. Upon entering, we noticed right away that this dispensary did not look like it had any link to anything medical in nature. The gentleman told us to produce a piece of photo ID in the lobby, as that was all that was needed to enter into the actual room where the dispensing takes place. To our shock, we asked if he needed to see a health card or doctors note from the clients who entered the facility, and he stated that no medical reason needed to be presented; simply a piece of ID that ensured you are who you say you are.
This was unsettling for many reasons. For starters, this establishment just makes getting marijuana that much easier for residents in the Moss Park neighbourhoods. Also, it undermines the validity of the potential benefits that medical marijuana use can have for its users. It suggests that the medical marijuana industry is used a guise for plain Jane – pun intended – marijuana usage. Unsure of whether this affects the crime rates in the neighbourhood or not, many are still apprehensive and disapprove of these facilities and its clientele. It definitely instills a sense that this is a place which you would not want to be alone if you’re just passing through. It is thought to degrade the appearance and feel of the neighbourhood, because after all, junkies and addicts can just stroll on by and grab a few joints like nobody’s business. This impacts the overall structure and function of the community, because other local businesses do not want to associate with this service, and many residents feel the same. This drives away potential business for the community, leading it to be underfunded and underserved. On the other hand, the removal of these dispensaries through processes of gentrification also serve draw in big business while driving away the urban poor, who often seek services from these facilities.
Both sides to this coin serve to further stigmatize, marginalize, and “other” the residents who live and work here daily. It paints the picture that these residents are poor, dirty, uneducated, drug addicts who are littering the streets of Toronto and should be kept in their little reservoir we call Moss Park. Of course this is all untrue and is a social production of stereotypes and misconceptions of the Moss Park neighbourhood, which is rooted in historical processes of urban renewal and development. Particularly from 1974 to 1983, policies favoured both safeguarding of the built environment of inner-city neighbourhoods and the opening of the planning process to citizen participation (Filion, 1988). As well, urban restructuring comprised a series of interconnected political-economic and spatial shifts, including economic and occupation change, gentrification, neo-liberal welfare state reform, and urban entrepreneurialism (Greene, 2014). With this being said, gentrification can be seen as part of the changing international spatial division of labour, and the emergence of global cities with control and command functions as part of a new urban hierarchy dominated by flows of finance capital (Hamnett, 1991).
All in all I believe the message to take from this is to be conscious of the way in which we see businesses and services materialize in certain settings. It is strategic, and is done in a way which both benefits and harms everyone involved. But, with this in mind, we need to be mindful of the way in which these businesses and their locations impacts the health and wellbeing of the people and place it is situated in. It is important to acknowledge that ideas surrounding place often incorporate narratives of myth which carry meaning, (Smith & Fiore, 2010), and this leads to the underserved nature of the residents and businesses in Moss Park
Does it make life easier for the people who are marijuana smokers in Moss Park to be able to find a clean, safe, secure place to purchase their desired substance, or make money? It is reported that a high proportion of urban poor state welfare or temporary employment as their main legal source of income (Millson et al., 1995). But, does this lead to safer practices and less crime between dealers and users? Does it decrease the amount of drug dealing happening on the streets and in the alleyways, and contain it so an allocated space? And how does this influence the health status of the users? One answer can be that of harm reduction frameworks, which focus on building a local capacity to create and sustain safe communities at a small neighbourhood scale (Saville, 2009). Also needed is the process of allowing people who are most affected to define the problem and suggest solutions, and integrating design improvement and community development (Whitzman, 1992). These are all questions that could potentially be explored further in order to create a better understanding for how the urban poor are strategically being weeded out of certain neighbourhoods and are being confined to another.
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