Who will sell legal marijuana in Ontario, and where? It’s no longer clear

This Kingston storefront was announced as one of Ontario's legal cannabis store sites. But with the clock ticking to legalization, it has a For Lease sign in the window. ALEXANDRA MAZUR/GLOBAL NEWS

With 89 days to go until legal recreational marijuana is a reality on Oct. 17, it’s no longer clear how many legal cannabis stores Ontario is planning to open, or who will run them.

An FAQ published by the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) still says the agency plans to open 40 bricks-and-mortar stores in 2018.

However, a spokesperson for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the OCS’s parent agency, would not say if it still planned to meet that target, writing that “updates on OCS retail openings will be provided in the near future.”

The OCS last made a public announcement in early April.

At that time, it named four addresses for retail stores, in Guelph, Kingston, Toronto and Thunder Bay, and announced that senior civil servant Nancy Kennedy had been named to lead the agency.

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However, Kennedy moved to a job in Ontario’s cabinet office in late June. Former Alcohol and Gaming Commission official David Phillips is the OCS’s acting head, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The change in leadership was not publicly announced. LCBO spokesperson Nicole Laoutaris would not answer questions about the context of Kennedy’s departure, or plans for a permanent replacement.

Asked directly whether Ontario was still committed to the public-sector model that the previous Liberal government decided on, finance ministry spokesperson Scott Blodgett would say only that “the government has been working to launch a cannabis retail and distribution system to meet the federal legalization timeline of Oct. 17, 2018. Ontario will be ready with a system in place that meets the objectives of protecting youth and eliminating the illegal market.”

Blodgett would not comment on a report in a cannabis industry newsletter on Thursday that the OCS had stopped signing store leases.

The lack of much visible activity at the store sites until recently, coupled with a lack of communication, naturally raises questions about whether the PCs plan a change in direction away from the government-run, union-staffed model the Liberals chose and handed on to them.

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“I don’t think there’s going to be a change in model,” says Warren (Smokey) Thomas, who heads Ontario’s government employees’ union.

The then-Liberal government and the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union agreed last year that cannabis store workers would be members of OPSEU.

“So far, we’ve not been served notice, or told that he’s changing anything. Last we heard, they’re just going to leave it alone and let it develop and see how it goes.”

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In March, during the provincial election campaign, Ford said he was open to letting the private sector sell marijuana.

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Asked about marijuana sales in June, Ford said that ” … what I said is I’d be focusing on the LCBO. I’m private sector. I don’t believe government should stick their nose into everything … .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.”

Ontario cannabis laws passed last year give the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation a monopoly on sales, but also give the finance minister broad authority to create exceptions.

Global News visited three of the publicly announced sites this week. Progress varied:

In Kingston, Global News reporter Alexandra Mazur found an empty store with papered windows and a ‘For Lease’ sign.

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No building permits are displayed, and the inside is empty:

The Guelph store was silent and empty until late June, but is now an active work site with a fence around it, says Global editor Brian McKechnie.

The Toronto store attracted controversy this spring when it turned out to be about 400 metres from an elementary school. (Minors won’t be allowed into cannabis stores, and someone will be posted at the entrance to check ID. Quebec will allow cannabis stores to be 250 metres from schools, or 150 metres in Montreal.)

In June, incoming Ontario Premier Doug Ford seemed to refer to the site when he said that “my priority is to make sure that we protect our children, we don’t make the mistakes of the previous Liberal government by putting a pot store right beside a school, which is absolutely ridiculous and it won’t happen under our administration.”

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Like the Guelph site, the Toronto location was quiet until mid-June.

However, when Global News visited this week, active renovation work was happening, and four building permits were displayed that City of Toronto records show had been granted to OCS. Construction workers confirmed that the location was a future cannabis store. However, the building permits were only issued in mid-July.

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Other provinces show signs of much more activity on the cannabis legalization file.

New Brunswick, for example, will have 20 government-operated stores open on Day 1. On Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador released a list of 29 private-sector cannabis store locations that are being screened by the government. And Nova Scotia, where marijuana will be sold from some liquor stores, was showing off the arrangements in Halifax this week:

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