Cannabis retailer backs out of Altona, Manitoba as battle brews over legal pot sales

FILE - This Nov. 27, 2015 file photo shows two marijuana buds displayed for a customer in Denver, Colorado.
FILE - This Nov. 27, 2015 file photo shows two marijuana buds displayed for a customer in Denver, Colorado. David Zalubowski / The Canadian Press

A southern Manitoba community has been left high and dry for legal pot — at least for now — after the company that had planned to open a cannabis shop in town has decided against the idea.

Calgary-based Westleaf confirmed Thursday it will not go ahead with its plan to open a cannabis store in Altona — one of seven rural Manitoba communities in which the province had wanted to see a pot shop open within the first two years of legalization.

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The move comes as the town appears to be on the cusp of a battle over whether or not to allow legal pot sales at all.

On Thursday morning, a group opposed to allowing a cannabis shop in Altona presented a petition to town council, calling for a plebiscite on the issue.

“They have concerns for the community’s safety and that’s why they’ve spoken up,” said Altona Mayor, Al Friesen.

“This is one of those opportunities to have conversations.”

In a statement to Global News, Westleaf’s chief commercial officer, Adam Coates, didn’t mention the petition or the opposition when asked why the Calgary-based company decided against opening up shop in Altona.

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“Westleaf took into account many factors when it came to extending its retail presence in the market. It has decided to pivot in regard to opening a store in Altona as a result of the larger business strategy,” he said in an email.

“Based on market demand and population size, Westleaf is focusing on expanding its retail presence in Alberta, with plans to open stores in Calgary and Edmonton in the spring.”

Friesen said Westleaf told the town about its decision prior to receiving the petition.

Plebiscite possible

He said the petition looks to have more than the 620 signatures needed to trigger a plebiscite, but town officials still need to verify the validity of those signatures before taking the issue to a vote.

After cannabis became legal across Canada in October 2018, the Manitoba government announced brick-and-mortar stores would open in Altona, Flin Flon, Lac du Bonnet, Niverville, Swan River, Virden and the RM of Russell-Binscarth.

The plan is part of the government’s goal for 90 per cent of Manitobans to have a recreational cannabis store located within a 30-minute drive by October 2020.

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At the time, Westleaf was chosen to open in Altona through a random draw, with a second retailer — a numbered Manitoba company — selected as a backup.

With news of Westleaf’s decision, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries said Thursday that numbered company will now be given the opportunity to open up shop in Altona.

In the meantime, Friesen said the town has 30 days to report back to council about the validity of the signatures on the petition.

Click to play video: 'Niverville mayor talks pot plebiscite'
Niverville mayor talks pot plebiscite

He expects that will happen in time for council’s next meeting on Feb. 25.

“At that point, our administration will indicate whether the petition meets muster. If it does, we will determine a date for a plebiscite,” said Friesen, who was cagey when asked if he’s in favour of legal pot sales.

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“Council, when we made our decision to not oppose having cannabis come to our community, we felt that we were choosing a pro-business, regulated approach,” he said.

“We felt that this was a safe process, or safer than having someone selling it out of a Ziplock bag.”

Click to play video: 'Edibles are now legal and soon to be available in Manitoba'
Edibles are now legal and soon to be available in Manitoba

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