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With the clock ticking, we have many questions, few answers on Ontario’s marijuana plan

In early April, Ontario announced that this former paint store in Guelph would become a legal cannabis store. But little progress has been seen since then.
In early April, Ontario announced that this former paint store in Guelph would become a legal cannabis store. But little progress has been seen since then. BRIAN MCKECHNIE/GLOBAL NEWS

This week, Canadians finally got a date when marijuana will be legal: Oct. 17.

The announcement puts the ball firmly in the provinces’ court; legal cannabis stores must be open, and online sales systems ready to go, in 117 days. It may seem like a lot of time, but there’s a lot to do.

Caught between an unforgiving timeline toward legalization on the one hand, and the many unknowns of an incoming government on the other, officials who are organizing legal marijuana retail in Canada’s highest-population province are saying almost nothing about their plans.

READ MORE: Doug Ford wants consultations on marijuana sales in Ontario

Outgoing Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne announced back in the fall of 2017 that pot would be sold through a government monopoly, like the province’s Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores. The Liberals set up the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation, a subsidiary of the LCBO, to sell marijuana when it’s legal. And cannabis store workers, like their LCBO colleagues, will be members of Ontario’s public-sector employees’ union. 

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WATCH: Governor General Julie Payette officially signed the Cannabis Act, an act to legalize marijuana, on Thursday in Ottawa.
Governor General presides over royal assent of the Cannabis Act
Governor General presides over royal assent of the Cannabis Act

Whether this is the kind of system that incoming PC premier Doug Ford would have set up, had he been in power at the time, is an open question. But asked about his cannabis roll-out plans Thursday, Ford seemed to rule out a last-minute switch to a private-sector system.

“I’m private sector. I don’t believe government should stick their nose into everything,” he told reporters.

“This is a path we have never went down, and we’re going to tread carefully on this and we’re going to consult with the local municipalities and we’re going to make a decision after we talk to caucus. But I also said we’d keep it in the LCBOs because they have the structure already put together.”

WATCH: ‘My priority is to make sure we protect the children’ as marijuana legalization takes effect, says Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford.
‘We must protect the children’: Ford on location of cannabis sales
‘We must protect the children’: Ford on location of cannabis sales

READ MORE: Pot … or not? Small provinces much more prepared for Day 1 of legalization

At the same time (unlike other provinces) Ontario isn’t giving the impression of going full speed ahead on the cannabis file. While officials have promised 40 bricks-and-mortar stores before the end of the year, only four sites have been announced. And the OCRC hasn’t issued an update since early April.

Speaking on background, LCBO and Ministry of Finance officials said they were constrained in what they could say because a change of government is in progress.

Here are seven questions about Ontario’s cannabis plans that officials have told Global News they won’t answer. (Some have been paraphrased from the original e-mail sent by Global News):

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  • We reported Wednesday that the OCRC had frozen ‘non-critical’ hiring in connection with a hiring freeze. What does ‘non-critical’ mean?

Does it mean retail workers? People finding and leasing sites for stores? How does the freeze affect the OCRC’s efforts to get ready for Day 1? It would be helpful to know.

READ MORE: As legalization nears, Ontario’s marijuana retailer halts ‘non-critical’ hiring

  • No new locations for OCS stores have been announced since April, and only four have been announced in total. Is Ontario’s planned rollout of cannabis stores on hold, or still in progress?

Ontario has promised 40 stores provincewide by the end of the year. But there’s little sign of the busy activity that you’d expect to go with that. (By contrast, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. have published the addresses and opening dates of all of their stores, in New Brunswick’s case starting last year.)

  • Will online cannabis sales in Ontario be ready to meet anticipated demand by legalization? How large is online demand anticipated to be?

Research by B.C.’s Liquor Distribution Branch found that 15 per cent of the province’s adult population, or about half a million people, were interested in buying pot online, spokesperson Viviana Zanocco wrote in an email. The equivalent in Ontario would be about 1.2 million people. Online distribution will be important if bricks-and-mortar retail is slow to develop. (Ontario will ban residents from ordering pot from other provinces, though they can buy it out of the province in person and bring it home if they want.) Is it up to the task? How big is the task, anyway?

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  • We recently visited an OCS location at 2480 Gerrard St. E. in Toronto. No progress at all has been made into turning it into a retail store. Why has no work been done at this site?

This Scarborough storefront, one of four sites announced for cannabis stores, attracted controversy back in April when it turned out to be somewhat near, but not very near, an elementary school. Missing from the discussion: if the more daring pupils tried to get in, they wouldn’t make it past the lobby. (A larger question: if it becomes policy not to allow cannabis retail within x distance of a school, what is x distance? It’s nearly impossible to site the stores without knowing this.)

PATRICK CAIN/GLOBAL NEWS
  • Has any work been done at the Stone Road site in Guelph?
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A former paint store chosen as a cannabis store in a plaza in Guelph (another of the original four) hasn’t seen much progress either, as you can see at the top of this story. A Global News reporter who’s been keeping an eye on the site says that the only change has been the appearance of a table and some chairs.

  • How many people are now working for the OCRC, including LCBO employees seconded to work at the OCRC?

A basic question, but one Global News can’t get an answer to.

  • “Ontario will be ready for legalization,” a Ministry of Finance spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. But what does “ready” look like?

New Brunswick, which has a complete network of stores ready to go except for the cannabis and the employees, can show us exactly what “ready” looks like. Ontario is more of a work in progress.

(Despite the change in government, the LCBO is making policy decisions and communicating them: on Thursday, it announced that it wouldn’t be buying wine from controversial winemaker Norman Hardie, apologizing that it took two days to make the statement after a story about him appeared in the Globe and Mail.)

WATCH: Now that we know recreational marijuana will be legalized this coming October, Peterborough is scrambling to figure out exactly what it will mean.
Pot legalization date: what’s next
Pot legalization date: what’s next

 

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Are you involved in Ontario’s cannabis store rollout? Is there something a reporter should know about? Use the form below to tell us about it. You don’t have to use your name if you don’t want to.