Ottawa

Pandemic brings pot shops, bike couriers together — but what happens when it ends?

A team of Ottawa bike couriers has found some measure of economic stability delivering cannabis during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there's uncertainty over what will happen once Ontario's emergency orders are lifted.

Only OCS permitted to provide home delivery once emergency order is lifted

Brandon Walsh, a bike courier with Veloz Courier, has found steady work delivering cannabis for an Ottawa pot shop, but he worries about what might happen once Ontario's state of emergency comes to an end. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Joe Glynn wasn't sure how he'd get his pot into his customers' hands.

Glynn, the general manager of Ottawa cannabis shop Stash & Co., found the industry's new home delivery model posed huge challenges, from keeping track of orders to dispatching staff.

So he turned to another group of workers facing economic uncertainty: bike couriers who suddenly found themselves with nothing to deliver.

Glynn estimates in the last four months, the team of couriers he's hired has made more than 9,000 deliveries, accounting for a boost in sales of about 25 per cent. 

"We get the order, within five minutes it's processed and ready to go and — in the downtown core — it's at [customers' homes] in about 20 to 30 minutes," said Glynn. 

'The best job'

Ontario's emergency measures, currently in place until at least July 29, give private cannabis retailers permission to deliver directly to their customers — something they'd never been able to do before.

That's provided a small boost to the bike courier business, which was decimated locally when the pandemic hit, said Brandon Walsh of Ottawa's Veloz Courier.

"I'd say 90 per cent of them are currently laid off," he said. "No one has a job to go back to after this."

Cannabis retailers in Ottawa say the temporary exemption allowing them to make home deliveries during the pandemic is about to expire — meaning layoffs for newly hired staff and a big setback in their fight to compete with the illicit market. 2:32

Walsh's band of couriers, all now hired by Stash & Co. — the emergency measures require them to be employees, not subcontractors — has now grown to a crew of 19. They have insurance, benefits and vacation pay, things most bike couriers never see.

"It's awesome," said Walsh. "That's like, almost the best thing that's happened. It's like the best job — [it] kind of sucks the pandemic created it, but it's definitely the best job that we've all had."

Uncertainty ahead

When Ontario's state of emergency eventually comes to an end, however, it could mean the end for what's become a dream job for Walsh's team.

Unless the rules are changed, the provincially owned Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) will once again become the only supplier allowed to provide home deliveries.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," said Walsh, some of whose customers told CBC News they're anxious about going back inside stores to buy cannabis.  

"I think we're all going to have to go on CERB or something, because there's no jobs to go back to. None of our companies will be hiring us back in the foreseeable future."

Customers line up outside an Ottawa cannabis shop in April at the start of the pandemic. Ontario's emergency order currently allows retailers to deliver pot to people's homes in an attempt to divert business from the black market. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General has said the home delivery exemption is intended to allow retailers to compete with the illicit market during the emergency declaration.  

One year after legalization, Statistics Canada found only 29 per cent of Canadians were buying legal cannabis.

"As part of the government's framework for reopening our province, cannabis retail stores can reopen with measures in place that can enable physical distancing," wrote ministry spokesperson Brian Gray in an email to CBC. "The government will continue to consider how best to support the sector as the cannabis market in Ontario continues to grow and mature."

Glynn said it would be "disappointing" if OCS once again become the only option for home delivery, especially for cannabis retailers whose sales are still far below pre-COVID-19 levels. 

"I finally had a way to compete: [in] 20 minutes, I was beating the black market to customers' houses and [doing it] with a safe, legal product," he said.

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