Many convenience store operators in Ontario are interested in converting their businesses into pot shops, says a spokesperson for the Ontario association representing 8,0000 of them.
Cannabis could be an opportunity for some of the small businesses, said Steve Tennant, chief operating officer with Gateway Newstands and the Ontario Convenience Stores Association. He was among more than a dozen delegations Thursday at a legislative committee studying provincial cannabis legislation.
The Conservative government has ditched plans for marijuana to be sold at outlets run by a subsidiary of the LCBO in favour of privately run stores.
The stores will be licensed by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. They are expected to open in April 2019.
Tennant urged legislators not to restrict licences to large locations. Many convenience stores are only 400 to 500 square feet.
It’s a tough business, with about 200 to 300 convenience stores failing every year, said Tennant.
The stores are accustomed to selling age-restricted products, and have an excellent record of not selling to minors, he said. Most lottery tickets and cigarettes are sold in convenience stores.
At the other end of the spectrum, officials for two large corporations that hope to open stores in Ontario urged politicians not to shut them out, either.
The legislation restricts cannabis growers “or their affiliates” from owning more than one store. The intent was to prevent any companies from dominating the retail trade.
But a lot hinges on the interpretation of the word “affiliate,” which will be decided in regulations.
Officials with one of the country’s largest growers, Aurora Cannabis, and Alcanna, the largest private-sector liquor retailer in Canada, said they wanted to be able to go ahead with their partnership. They have licences to operate stores in Alberta and planned to apply to open multiple stores in Ontario. Aurora owns a 25-per-cent share of Alcanna.
The best way to beat the black market cannabis trade is to allow a range of stores, said Alcanna senior vice-president Dave Crapper. That should include stores run by small businesses as well as large, “well-capitalized” corporations, he said.
Both Crapper and a spokesperson for Aurora suggested the province should follow the model in Alberta, which allows private stores but limits any one company to owning no more than 15 per cent of the total.
Crapper said one of the best ways to ensure competition is to not limit the number of licences. In Alberta, for instance, there are 2,400 stores that sell alcohol, he said. “No one can possibly corner the Alberta liquor market.”
Ontario says it won’t limit the number of marijuana store licences. It plans to establish a buffer zone to prevent stores near schools, and to allow municipalities and the public 15 days to comment on any licence application.
Municipalities can also “opt out” of allowing cannabis stores within their borders.
Ontario municipalities that opt out should be allowed the choice of hosting a government-run store instead, the head of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union suggested.
Warren “Smokey” Thomas said municipalities that opt out might welcome a store run by the LCBO because that agency has a long history of safely selling alcohol. HIs union represents employees at the LCBO.
The government’s plans will create “a wild west of pot stores,” he warned.
The legislative committee hears more public delegations Friday before beginning clause-by-clause consideration of the bill Monday. The government would be able to pass the legislation by Oct. 16, the day before recreational marijuana becomes legal, because it has indicated it will limit debate.
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