Ontario can fix its cannabis retail regime by putting the focus back on the industry

BY JEAN LÉPINE

There’s no sense acting like Captain Obvious when it comes to how many cannabis stores will open on Monday. To say it’s not an ideal retail footprint to combat the illegal market would be an understatement. But let’s focus on what can be, rather than what is.

Ontario was on a path to become the most enlightened private retail regime in the country.  In a slowing economy, creating new jobs while protecting the safety of consumers and eliminating black market sales made this pursuit a slam-dunk.

But no, wait. Facing supply concerns, the province shelved its plan and conceived a short-term and now unfortunate measure: the retail lottery, which by and large attracted and rewarded curious cannabis speculators.

The industry and government bit its proverbial lip and tried to make lemonade out of lemons. Rather than repeat this approach, we think it is time to take a breath, exhale and recalibrate. Do what savvy business people do when things don’t turn out the way they intended: Get back to your plan.

A new day provides a new platform. Now is the time for the government to put the focus back on the industry and break the retail licensing logjam in a definitive manner.

How should this occur? Simply invite professional retail operators to put their cards on the table and present their bona fides through a new operator-focused application window. Furthermore, use that process to gather critical data and publish it. No secrecy needed.

The Ontario government would then have real information on the serious players in the space and their confirmed locations. For the first time, it would see the full picture and could work with committed stakeholders on store rollouts. This would begin the process of reducing the illicit market in tandem with supply issues subsiding.

It’s time to put the onus on these private sector operators and let them compete on their dime; let them take the risk. In this win-win scenario, these operators will lead the fight against the illegal market. Let the free market reign.

Taking this small step will separate the speculators from the real operators and gets all of us one step closer to the much-anticipated open system. And for the Ford government, it gets the train back on the tracks.

Jean Lépine is executive vice-president at BlackShire Capital.

Celine Chang