Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

What's at stake in Ontario's cannabis store rollout

A former employee of of an illegal cannabis dispensary in Toronto stands outside the now-shuttered store. Nearly half a year after legalization, Ontario still doesn't have any legal cannabis stores. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press) (CP)

A former employee of of an illegal cannabis dispensary in Toronto stands outside the now-shuttered store. Nearly half a year after legalization, Ontario still doesn't have any legal cannabis stores. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Last December, Ontario's government threw a wrench into the plans of Canada's cannabis retailers when it announced there would be just 25 cannabis store licences across the entire province by April 1.

That's just two weeks from now, and as a smart new analysis by the Ottawa Citizen's Jacquie Miller concludes, it's highly unlikely that 25 cannabis stores will actually be open on Ontario on April Fools' Day. (That might be related to the fact that most of the licence winners were individuals with no previous experience in the cannabis retail space, and have spent the past months scrambling to partner up with bigger players.)

Ontario's decisions to limit its first store licences and dole them out by lottery didn't get a great reception from the cannabis industry. But cannabis consultant Omar Khan thinks the province got it right on both counts, given supply problems in the cannabis industry.

"I think the lottery system was something that they really didn't have a choice on, given that the initial tranche of licences was so low," says Khan, vice president at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

"You would want to avoid any perception of favouritism, whether it's true or not, especially when there's such a small number of licences, and they're so highly sought-after."

(It's worth noting that Khan is a vice-president of the Ontario Liberal Party and a former chief of staff for former ministers under Ontario's previous Liberal government.)

Right now, the lack of licensed cannabis stores appears to have hamstrung sales of legal cannabis in Ontario, compared to other provinces with better retail access. Khan expects Canada's cannabis supply issues should start clearing up towards the end of this year — and if the Ontario government doesn't start improving access to legal cannabis by licensing many more weed stores by then, he thinks Doug Ford's PCs could face "definite political risk."

Michael LeBlanc is a senior retail advisor with the Retail Council of Canada, which supports Ontario's move to privatize retail cannabis stores. He thinks it's unfair to judge any provincial governments on their cannabis store policies in the short term.

"It's only been not even six months (since legalization), so let's give it some time," says LeBlanc. "It's complex, and I don't think it's something you want to rush."

But as Omar Khan points out, it's not just cannabis consumers, the weed industry, and pointy-headed policy wonks who are watching to see if Canada's cannabis legalization efforts are successful in achieving Ottawa's goal of combating black market marijuana.

Other developed countries are also watching, as they ponder their own cannabis policy reforms. Since Ontario represents roughly 40 per cent of Canada's total cannabis market, Ontario's success (or failure) in launching bricks-and-mortar cannabis stores will play a huge role in the success (or failure) of legalization on a national basis.

"If we're not able to show them, let's say a year out from legalization… that we've been able to do it in a smooth, efficient, and equitable manner, then it may cause others globally who are looking at this to perhaps pause a little bit, and second-guess whether or not they should follow Canada's example," says Khan.


New on The Leaf

  • A recycling bin for cannabis containers at a Tokyo Smoke store in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press)

    A recycling bin for cannabis containers at a Tokyo Smoke store in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press)

    Recycling initiative: A program funded by Canopy Growth Corp. will recover and reprocess cannabis containers from legal retailers and individuals.
  • Know your limits: Herb explains what the law has to say about possessing cannabis edibles in public.
  • Downward trend: High-level data show Canadian cannabis sales dropped between December and January.

Elsewhere on the Weed Wide Web

  • Indigenous self-governance: Six Nations First Nation has enacted its own cannabis law.
  • Slinging weed with The Girls: "The Girls," a pair of Halifax weed dealers, allow a reporter to observe their booming business.
  • Genetic analysis: Nova Cannabis stores in Alberta are now offering DNA tests that purportedly determine how a subject will react to cannabis.

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