Alberta stores preparing as online cannabis sales to go private in March

Alberta is changing how cannabis can be sold online as of March 8 — and some stores are scrambling to prepare.

AGLC's cannabis sales website will go up in smoke on March 8

Fire and Flower runs 105 cannabis stores across Canada, including this one in Edmonton's Clareview area. The company would like to get into the online cannabis market in Alberta, but is running into some confusion with the AGLC. (Submitted by Fire and Flower)

Alberta is changing how cannabis can be sold online as of March 8 — and some stores are scrambling to prepare.

A legal change, passed by the legislature last year, will see Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) shut down the online orders section of its website. This will open the online market to private sellers.

High Tide, which runs 58 Canna Cabana stores in Alberta and already sells cannabis online in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is anxious to expand its online reach in the province.

"We've done a pretty good job that we can operate online sales and home delivery in a safe, secure manner," chief revenue officer Andy Palalas said. "It's a big part of our strategy for addressing the illicit market."

The company is trying to iron out details with the AGLC to be ready to sell online and deliver as of March 8.

The AGLC will still supply cannabis products for sale. Anyone who wants to sell online in the province must already have a bricks-and-mortar retail store. There are currently 744 stores licensed in Alberta.

Andy Palalas is the chief revenue officer for High Tide, which runs Canna Cabana and META cannabis stores across Canada. (Submitted by High Tide)

Businesses must use their own delivery people, or they can use Canada Post or a courier service.

Potential online sellers will have to clear some bureaucratic hurdles and meet AGLC standards. A store must apply to expand its licence to online sales, and AGLC inspectors must endorse any website before it goes live, according to spokesperson Karin Campbell.

The websites will also need a "robust" way to verify a shopper's age, to ensure kids aren't buying cannabis online, she said. Shoppers who look younger than 25 will also have to show ID when their delivery arrives.

The AGLC has yet to endorse any of the new private websites selling in Alberta, Campbell said.

It's too soon to say how many companies will be ready to sell online as of March 8, she said, but "many" have indicated they will be.

Regulatory hurdles could delay some sales

Not likely to be ready on that date is Fire & Flower, which operates 42 cannabis stores across Alberta.

"We're down to the wire in terms of timing, and based on the responses I've received so far, I'm not optimistic that March 8 will be the day that we first deliver in Alberta," said Matthew Anderson, vice-president of legal, business affairs and compliance with Fire & Flower.

Anderson is having trouble getting clarity from the AGLC on some regulatory issues, he added.

Alberta's requirements for proof of identity for online sales are more stringent than in other Canadian jurisdictions, Anderson said.

This, he said, is a problem for Fire & Flower because it wants to use software that can be adapted to rules in other provinces or countries.

The other snag is delivery. Fire & Flower acquired a cannabis delivery company called Pineapple Express, and it's unclear if their current business arrangement would meet the delivery requirements, he said.

Matt Anderson is vice-president, legal, business affairs and compliance with Fire and Flower in Edmonton. (Submitted by Fire and Flower)

Meanwhile, Albertans who live in more remote communities may also have challenges finding products online at first.

Palalas, of High Tide, says it will be too expensive for the company to deliver far from their stores.

High Tide's focus is to deliver orders more quickly, to within a couple of hours in larger cities.

In High Level, 740 kilometres north of Edmonton, one cannabis store owner says she's not interested in selling online in Alberta.

"Everybody's going to be doing it," said Catherine Hill, who owns two stores called It's 420 Somewhere — one in High Level, another in Hay River, N.W.T.

It's easy to get into the online market, but that the market will be quickly saturated in Alberta — even in more remote locations, she said.

For now, Hill's focus is on creating an enjoyable in-store experience for shoppers.

"A lot of people also just love going in and speaking to their local bud tender."


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.