Pot shop lottery has would-be owner on edge

Rebecca Trueman has a business plan, a location and some initial investors — but it could all go up in smoke if Lady Luck isn't smiling on her come Friday.

Minister says would-be owners who leased space before securing licence took risk

Rebecca Trueman is hoping to open a cannabis shop in Carp, but the province has capped the number of retail licences it will initially dole out at 25. (Darren Major/CBC)

Rebecca Trueman has a business plan, a location and some initial investors — but it could all go up in smoke if Lady Luck isn't smiling on her come Friday.

Trueman is hoping to open a cannabis store in Carp, a community on Ottawa's western edge, but it will only happen if she's one of 25 retailers picked by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario in a lottery to determine who gets the province's first cannabis retail licences.

"We found great investors, we found a great location and set up everything," she told CBC's Ottawa Morning. "Then, four days before we were able to apply for our licence, the world came crashing down."

Of the 25 initial licences, only five are being earmarked for all of eastern Ontario.

Ottawa could potentially end up with all five locations — or none.

The Ontario government had said for months it would not cap the number of retail stores in the province, the first of which are set to open this spring. 

It abruptly changed course last month, saying it couldn't support more than 25 stores due to "severe supply shortages" at the federal level that have caused some new shops in other provinces to close because of a lack of product.

Trueman said she understands the government's rationale, but said from the perspective of a small business, it's still a bitter pill to swallow.

"[We] had taken into consideration that there may be limited supply available. We would deal with the limited supply. It would allow us to get running," she said.

Minister: risks were well-known

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Tuesday that entrepreneurs such as Trueman never had a guarantee they'd get a licence.

"She had no retail operator licence in advance, she had no retail store authorization — everybody in the industry knew you needed those before you went out and rented a place," he said.

"This is a brand new industry.… People jumped the queue and tried to find a place before they got a licence. She's presuming she would have qualified. This was a business risk." 

Fedeli said they expect to have a "full, open allocation" of licences once the government is confident there's sufficient supply.

"We absolutely cannot go ahead with an unlimited or increased number [of licences] that would compromise the viability of the business. We're doing what's best for their business," he said.

The current cap is up for review in December, but Trueman, a biologist who said she was laid off from her last job before deciding to take a chance on cannabis, is optimistic supply will catch up with demand before then. 

"It's so dynamic and shifting every single day that you never know what it's going to bring."

If she's not among the first 25 licensees, Trueman said she might explore other options such as opening a cannabis accessory shop while she waits for more licences to become available.