Article by Colleen Romaniuk, Sudbury Star
Cannabis retail has been slow to get off the ground in Northern Ontario.
Of the 66 pot shops authorized to open since legalization, only seven of them are located in the North, including two in Sudbury.
The government has also authorized as many as 26 stores to open on First Nations reserves, many of them located in Northern Ontario, but it is unclear how many are ready to begin operations.
The fact remains the cannabis boom has been mostly concentrated in the south.
In December 2019, the provincial government announced that it would move to an open market this year.
“We have always intended to allow private‐sector businesses to build a safe and convenient retail system that protects young people and communities because it is the most effective way to combat the illegal market,” said Jenessa Crognali, spokesperson for the Ontario government.
Many hope that this means Northern Ontario will finally be able to catch up.
The first retail lottery placed heavy restrictions on potential applicants.
According to Espanola Mayor Jill Beer, the restrictions put a damper on Northern enthusiasm.
“Espanola is a small regional hub with a population of about 5,000 people. We decided to allow cannabis retail stores in the area to get access to funding to adjust to the legalization of cannabis and help retailers combat the black market in the area,” she said.
“But because of the population restrictions (in the first lottery), we were excluded. A lot of people who had an interest had their plans stalled, and then I imagine it was difficult to get started again.”
Ontario’s initial plan was to authorize 25 stores in the first lottery.
However, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) announced it would only be authorizing two retail stores in the entire North Region, which they defined as Nipissing, Parry Sound, Timiskaming, Cochrane, Algoma, Thunder Bay, Rainy River, and Kenora.
This is in contrast to five stores in the East Region, six stores in the GTA, fives stores in the Toronto Region, and seven in the West Region.
Southern Ontario’s population is about 16 times larger than Northern Ontario’s, so this makes sense from the perspective of supply and demand.
But due to the North’s sheer geographical size, having fewer cannabis retail stores doesn’t make sense.
Those living in Parry Sound, for example, had to drive over an hour and a half to the nearest retail store in the last year.
Among other requirements, the stores had to be located in a municipality with a population of more than 50,000.
Restrictions were rolled back with the second lottery, and more communities had the chance to apply.
Noreen Nichol and five members of her family, all from Nipissing First Nation, are part of the second wave of cannabis stores opening this year.
On Feb. 29, Kana Leaf Cannabis Dispensary on 12 Osprey Road near North Bay was open for business.
“It has been a long process with lots of hurdles, but I think that’s the same with any new industry and new business,” she said.
“My family has always been looking to go into business, and when we saw this whole new industry, we thought, let’s do this. What an exciting time to be starting out.”
Nichol said that there has been a lot of community interest and support.
“The goal has always been to compete with the black market and to deliver legal, safe, quality products that people can trust.”
On top of that, opening a cannabis retail store will have positive economic benefits for the community. Kana Leaf has already hired 12 full- and part-time staff from their community, and they might be looking to hire further in the future.
Nichol predicts that one day, cannabis retail stores will be as numerous as the LCBO and The Beer Store.
“There will be a couple in each town you go to,” she said.
But that reality might still be a few years away.
A number of municipalities across the province decided to opt out of allowing retail cannabis stores to open in their communities.
In Northern Ontario, some of these include Sables-Spanish Rivers, Baldwin, Chapleau, Killarney, Markstay-Warren, Dorion and Emo.
Some smaller communities, whose populations are in the hundreds, felt as though jumping through the hoops in terms of regulations wasn’t worth it for such a small municipality.
Others chalked it up to caution – they wanted to see how the situation would play out first.
The AGCO will allow these communities to opt in at a later date, but if they do, they cannot opt out again.
Communities like Elliot Lake felt strongly about opting in to allow cannabis retail for more reasons than one.
Mayor Dan Marchisella stated that opting out of the cannabis market would mean opting into the continuation of the black market.
Opportunities for controlled, legal retail, sustainable industry, and increased job and tax revenue were considered a benefit to the community when Elliot Lake made their decision.
Of course, bumps in the road for a new industry are to be expected.
When the LCBO first opened its doors on June 1, 1927, its 16 retail outlets in select communities experienced long line-ups, confusion about new regulations, and stock shortages – all things we are seeing today.
Now, there are about 660 LCBO stores throughout the province.
Applications for retail licenses under the new guidelines opened on Jan. 6.