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Ontario cannabis stores open, but fewer than half are good to go [UPATED]

Customers lined up to purchase pot at Ontario's first brick-and-mortar cannabis stores on Monday, but fewer than half of the province's government-licensed outlets were ready to open.


April 1, 2019
By The Canadian Press

The Progressive Conservative government planned to have 25 private stores launch on April 1, but some were still working through a lengthy approval process.

Premier Doug Ford defended his government’s decision to hold a lottery to determine who could apply for store licences, saying more shops would be opening soon.

“Over the next few weeks we’ll get it done,” he said. “If it means another week or two to get it right, let’s do it.”

Recreational cannabis has so far only been available for purchase legally in Ontario through a government-run website.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which is overseeing the vetting process, said 10 stores were given the green light to open Monday — three in Ottawa, two in Kingston and one each in Toronto, Brampton, Burlington, London and St. Catharines.

In Toronto, Stephanie Shamoon was the second person in line outside the Hunny Pot Cannabis Co. She said she braved the unseasonal cold from 10 p.m. Sunday night to be part of a significant moment.

“It’s kind of a history-in-the making kind of thing,” said the 20-year-old, noting that shopping in a physical store was much easier than buying pot online. “You can come in right away, pick up what you want… you can smell it.”

Hunny Gawri, owner of the sprawling store spread over four floors, said he got barely an hour’s sleep Sunday night as employees rushed to get ready for the opening.

“We have a full house in here,” he said. “It’s everything we could have asked for.”

Although cannabis retailers across Canada have faced product shortages since legalization last October, Gawri said his store received everything it ordered. When asked whether he was worried about running out of product in the coming days, he said, “it’s hard to say.”

“It really comes down to how many people come through … we are hoping we have enough supply before the next delivery,” he said.

In Burlington, Art Jackes arrived at 4 a.m. to line up outside RELM Cannabis Co. By 9 a.m., about two dozen people were waiting for the outlet’s doors to open.

Jackes, 67, who is a medicinal cannabis user, said his overall experience at the store was good but he felt the prices were too high.

“The government’s not going to have any chance of dealing with the black market if they don’t lower the cost,” he said.

Gord Nichols, who arrived at the store at 5:30 a.m., said he lined up because he wanted to be part of an important day.

“I just wanted to wait and see what the excitement is about,” he said. “It’s the end of prohibition.”

Nichols said he hopes legalization pushes cannabis out of the shadows and lifts some of the stigma around it.

“It’s going to be different to go and buy it and relax at home and not be afraid,” he said.

Shop owner David Nguyen said he was happy to have been one of the few shops to open doors on Monday. The word “finally” — spelled out in gold balloons — decorated one wall.

“We’re all here to make history,” he said. “We have great educators to teach about products and we also have security to ensure that they’re checking IDs.”

In the nation’s capital a long line formed outside Fire & Flower, located in Ottawa’s tourist hub, the Byward Market.

Niki Schaap said she was at the store celebrating her first day of retirement and looking for something to help with pain management.

“I’m open to lots of things in life,” she said. “I also wanted to be part of the opening of the store and the first day.”

Store owner Michael Patterson said he is confident he will be able to meet customer demand.

“Everyone is coming in the door with a big smile and is leaving with an even bigger smile,” he said.

The Tory government had initially said there would be no cap on the number of retail shops after pot was legalized. In December, citing national supply issues, the government said it was issuing licences to just 25 stores.

Stores that fail to open Monday face escalating penalties — failing to open a store Monday results in a $12,500 draw down on a letter of credit, while not opening by the end of April means applicants risk losing their entire $50,000 letter of credit.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath slammed the government for the delays in store openings, saying it had time to put a proper system in place last fall but failed.

“This lack of access we have today is squarely at the feet of Mr. Ford and his government,’” she said.

Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said the black market will flourish because of the lack of legal stores. The previous Liberal government had planned to open as many as 40 government-run cannabis store before the Tories moved to a private store model.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government plan is failing the public.

“The competition here is between organized crime and private stores,” he said. “Ten stores across the province is not going to put a dent in organized crime.”

Pot store licences have been divided regionally, with five going to eastern Ontario, seven to the west, two in the north, six in the Greater Toronto Area and five in Toronto itself.

— Shawn Jeffords and Armina Ligaya (with files from Teresa Wright in Ottawa.)

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2019