Doug Ford blowing more smoke on legalization in Ontario

After a year marked by a mostly miserable relationship with the cannabis industry, the premier is still trying to pick fights

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford wants to bury the hatchet with weed companies – and start selling some damn weed already.

“We’re going to make sure these companies prosper,” said Ford, speaking on Bloomberg News late last week. “We want to help ‘em any which way we can.”

It’s the kind of bluster you’d expect from an “open-for-business” premier. But after a year marked by a mostly miserable relationship between the province and its Licensed Producers, Ford is still trying to pick fights.

“Maybe I’ll shoot back a little bit,” he told Bloomberg. “They didn’t have the supply ready.”

The government says it’s ready to take its foot off the brakes when it comes to cannabis. In December they officially scrapped the lottery system used to hand out licenses for retail stores. They say they are now planning on approving 20 new stores every month starting in April.

Ford may be confident in the province’s ability to turn its legalization ship around, but a lot of questions remain. Whether the province will actually be able to open more stores than “all the provinces combined” — a Ford promise — seems doubtful.

Estimates suggest that Ontario could support more than 1,000 retail stores across the province. But we are still years away from getting there.

A spokesperson for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which regulates weed in the province, tells CannCentral that 600-plus applications have been received for licenses, but only 54 have been approved as of this week. At the rate, Ontario won’t be on track to hit 500 stores for nearly two years.

When pressed on how the province plans to support the cannabis industry, or if there were any further changes coming, a spokesperson for the premier’s office doesn’t offer details. “I really can’t comment on anything beyond what our government has already announced,” Ivana Yelich says in an interview.

All the while, the province is still hampering pot companies in lots of little ways. The restrictions that shut LPs out of participating in the retail market are still mostly in place, except for sales at the point of production. But even there, the government is throwing up roadblocks.

Any producer hoping to sell their own cannabis at their growing facility will first have to sell it to the Ontario Cannabis Store, the province’s online retailer, and then buy it back — at a markup — before selling it to consumers.

The illicit market in weed, meanwhile, remains cheap, comparatively speaking. And has the advantage over the legal market when it comes to price, product differentiation, quality and convenience.

For many, Ontario is not only falling behind other provinces. It may have missed the boat.

For example, a blockbuster deal between Second Cup and National Access Cannabis would have seen many of the coffee shop’s locations turned into dispensaries. But that idea is now described by the company’s president Steven Pelton as “old news,” snuffed out by regulatory obstacles.

“It’s been difficult to see it all not come to fruition as we hoped,” Pelton tells CannCentral.

So while Ford may enjoy talking up his support for the cannabis industry, it’s more hype than help. Spokespeople from the province’s largest LPs, Aurora and Canopy Growth, declined to comment on Ford’s Bloomberg remarks. Their silence speaks volumes.