Cannabis retail companies flock to Ontario in 'frenzy,' despite silence from province on pot plans

Reports emerged the week before last that the government was opening the door to private retailers in the legal pot industry, but provincial officials have kept mum ever since. That hasn't stopped companies from rushing to set up shop in recent weeks.

In recent weeks, companies have rushed to secure retail locations to sell pot in Ontario

Private pot retailers are flocking to Ontario, in spite a lack of clarity from the new provincial government about how it wants the industry to operate. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Despite no official word from the province on how it plans to manage the sale of recreational cannabis come October, private retailers are flocking to Ontario to set up shop.

"Ontario is a frenzy right now in terms of entrepreneurs, real estate developers — anybody within the cannabis infrastructure," said Dave Martyn, president of Starbuds Canada and Compass Cannabis Clinic.

"The level of anticipation that's building up is massive right now."

Martyn said Starbuds — a cannabis retailer originally based in Colorado —  has already secured multiple locations in Ontario. The medicinal arm of the company, Compass Cannabis Clinic, already has locations open throughout B.C. and Alberta.

"Within the industry, the rumblings have been going on for three weeks through very reliable sources that private retail would happen [in Ontario]," said Martyn on the company's decision to push ahead despite no formal announcement from the Ontario government.

Reports emerged the week before last that the province was opening the door to private retailers in the legal pot industry, but provincial officials have kept mum ever since.

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"We can assure you, though, that the government has been working to launch a cannabis retail and distribution system to meet the federal legalization timeline of October 17, 2018," said Scott Blodgett, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance, in response to a question about when the government will unveil its plan.

Private, public or both?

Under the previous Wynne government, the province planned to sell recreational pot through a new Crown agency called the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corp. It would be an arm of the LCBO.  

The crown corporation was to set up 40 Ontario Cannabis Store locations to open by the end of this year. An online sales portal was slated to be up running as soon as federal marijuana legalization takes effect.

What's unclear is whether the new PC government will move exclusively to private retailers — effectively nixing the previous policy under the provincial Liberals — or have a mix, 

Speculation continues on what the Ontario government's plans are for managing the sale of recreational marijuana. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

"Initially, we heard this was going to be all private, I think we're now hearing this might be a mixed model. which is basically a mix of of public and private stores," said Deepak Anand, vice president of government relations and business development at Cannabis Compliance Inc., a Mississauga consulting company that helps firms in the industry navigate "the constantly shifting regulatory framework that has defined the sector," according to its website.

"The government seems to be changing its mind before making an announcement here, so we really don't know what's to come," Anand said.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) is keeping a close eye on which way the cards fall.

"I've been trying to get the government to answer questions, whether [the plan to privatize] is real or imagined, or whether they're thinking of some variation of it", said OPSEU President Smokey Thomas.

"If [Premier Doug Ford] is going down the private road he should at least have a hybrid system with public stores. You want some competition here," he said.

"But don't throw away the stores you've already planned on opening."


Farrah Merali is an award-winning reporter at CBC Toronto with a passion for politics, investigative journalism and urban health issues. She previously worked as the early morning reporter at CBC Vancouver. Follow her at @FarrahMerali