Saskatoon

Million Dollar Doobie: Why 1 Saskatchewan pot figure won't sell his claim, despite some big offers

Plus: What's up with the 11 other legal cannabis stores that have yet to open in Saskatchewan?

Clay Sparks says he's been offered $2 million to sell his store in La Loche

(Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Today marks one year since the Canadian government legalized cannabis and allowed recreational users to buy their supply in Saskatchewan stores.

Thirty-nine of 51 planned store locations have their doors open to customers. 

Clay Sparks is not among the current crop of sellers, though. 

Sparks won the chance at operating a store in La Loche — the northernmost location for a Saskatchewan pot store — through a lottery run by the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority. 

But Sparks, after waiting on pins and needles for several weeks, only found out a week ago that he had passed SLGA's final background check process.

While waiting in pot purgatory, Sparks said he received offers of up to $2 million for the rights to his future La Loche store. 

"[It's] kinda crazy to think about," he said. 

Thirty-nine of Saskatchewan's 51 pot stores have opened, one year after cannabis legalization. (Gosia Wozniacka/The Associated Press)

One year after legalization, Sparks isn't so sure he'd be able to fetch that same price. 

"When you just look at the math it's probably not worth that right now," he said. "But as we fast forward three or five years and the whole market matures and edibles come online and we start to [see] numbers that seem a little bit more closer to alcohol sales, I think that those numbers will very much be the case."

Not that Sparks is interested in selling, he said.

"I do care about the many challenges that exist in that community and do want to participate in helping remedy that and have a business in town that has jobs and and opportunities for people," he said. 

Sparks has until April 16 to open his La Loche store and hopes to do so in early 2020.

"The process of selecting the location, getting something temporary in place, doing the proper security cameras, sourcing supply — it's going to be at least three months," he said. 

What about Saskatchewan's 11 other unopened stores?

In terms of their status and potential openings, it's a grab bag.

Let's start with Canora. According to the SLGA, the original lottery winner for that community, Clarity Cannabis SK Ltd., dropped out of the process. The first of two runners-up didn't pass the background check. And the second runner-up was not interested.

"SLGA is currently considering the situation in Canora as part of its larger review of whether additional permits will be made available 12 to 18 months after legalization," said David Morris, an SLGA spokesperson. 

The Saskatchewan government planned for 51 stores in 31 locations. (CBC)

In six other communities — RM of Corman Park, Maple Creek, Rosetown, Outlook, Melfort and Weyburn, the latter of which was slated to get two stores — the SLGA ultimately turned to runners-up. Those people have until the fall of 2020 to open their doors.

The remaining four would-be pot sellers chosen during the lottery continue to move through the permitting process. 

"SLGA has granted extensions appropriate to the individual circumstances," Morris said of those people. 

The stores that opened are making a killing, right?

Not in Cierra Sieben-Chuback's experience. The 24-year-old owner of Living Skies Cannabis learned she'd won one of seven Saskatoon pot lottery slips only weeks before graduating from business school. 

"People don't realize the costs associated with this industry," she said. "There's a huge startup cost usually. Another thing we had faced was a $20,000 licensing fee from the city of Saskatoon." That fee has since been reduced by city council to $85 a year.

"Financially we're okay," she added. "We're not going bankrupt or shutting down. But it is challenging and I wouldn't really say it's a licence to print money. That's not really fair."

Sierra Sieben-Chuback, the owner of Saskatoon's Living Skies Cannabis, says the stigma around pot has waned since legalization. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Last week, CBC News reported that after legalization, the price of black-market pot dropped most significantly in Saskatchewan compared to all other provinces, while the price of legal pot in Saskatchewan went up by $3 dollars. 

Gene Makowsky, the minister responsible for the SLGA, said the price of cannabis in the province is a concern.

"That's one of the things that consumers look to," he said Tuesday. "Obviously [also] the in-store experience and access and the different types of of product that's out there. Price is a factor as well."

Gene Makowsky, the minister responsible for the SLGA, says the price of cannabis in the province is a concern. (CBC)

Makowsky said the province would have more to say Thursday. 

"Some people will come in and straight up tell us, 'I'm only here right now because my dealer's out,'" Sieben-Chuback said. 

"There's not really much we can do about it at that point but we find more and more people that were mainly shopping from the black market are coming into the store."

Has pot's stigma been removed post-legalization?

It has for Ricky Horachek. He's a regular at Living Sky Cannabis who used to buy from the black market — or "that guy," as Horacheck put it, gesturing with air quotes. 

Horacheck said it felt weird at first to buy from a legal store, but he now appreciates being able to get weed on his own schedule, as opposed to the less-than-reliable timetable of his previous provider.

"You can come down and you can get it anytime," he said of the store. (Not quite: Sieben-Chuback's store is open until 11 p.m., and only Fridays and Saturdays. The rest of the week, it closes earlier.)

Horacheck also enjoys picking from a variety of strains. "The guy used to have one kind," Horacheck said. "And if it was shit, you did not get a choice. Take it or leave it."

The strains on offer at Living Skies Cannabis. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Sieben-Chuback said some people looked nervous when her store first opened in December 2018. Not anymore.

"Despite us being a cannabis store full of cannabis, people still had that fear of being judged or whatever," she said. "But since then I feel like a lot of the stigma has sort of gone away within our own space."

Has pot use been much of a problem on the road?

Not to judge by figures shared by the province and the Saskatoon Police Service, Saskatchewan's biggest police force. 

From November 2018 to end of March 2019, the province recorded 72 incidents of drug impaired driving where the driver was either charged or had their licence suspended. That's an average of 12 incidents per month and those included drugs other than cannabis. 

The Saskatoon Police Service doesn't separate cannabis- or drug-involved impaired driving incidents from those involving alcohol. So the police service can't say how many of last year's 250 impaired drivers were stopped and disciplined because of cannabis. 

Anecdotally, officers get a whiff of weed off drivers almost every night during checkstops, Sgt. Patrick Barbar, the head of Saskatoon's traffic unit, told Saskatoon Morning's Jennifer Quesnel Thursday.  

Is that a problem? It depends.

"It's really unclear at this point how much time it takes for THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] to work its way out of your system," said Barbar.

But he has some advice. 

"[People] need to give themselves time," Barbar said. 

"If it's been more than eight or 10 hours, it's generally not a concern," he said. "But if we hear, 'Well I used cannabis 25 minutes ago' then of course we'd be concerned and we'd pursue it a little bit further."

Police agencies were unsure how much of a burden the legalization of cannabis would place on officers.

One year in, "if we look at the numbers, certainly the sky hasn't fallen," Barbar said. "I think we've seen an increase in the number of drivers who are using cannabis but I don't think it's the disaster that was predicted by some." 

What now?

The federal government has legalized pot edibles as of Thursday. The Saskatchewan government is expected to speak about how it will regulate that segment of the cannabis retail industry on Thursday.

Sieben-Chuback of Living Skies Cannabis said it will likely be a bit of a wait until edibles make it onto her stores shelves.

"There is going to be a sort of lull period where producers are sending their products to Health Canada for testing," she said. 

"We won't start to see those kinds of products like edibles and concentrates until mid-December, maybe not until January. We're not really sure but that's just something that we're going to take as it comes."

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips and ideas welcomed at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

With files from Jennifer Quesnel and Adam Hunter

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