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Ontario to issue 50 new cannabis store licences: What could this mean for c-stores?

cannabisOntario is set to get 50 more cannabis stores starting in October, and applicants will have to first show they have their finances and retail space ready to go.

The announcement June 26th comes as some of the first 25 of the province’s legal pot shops that were supposed to open April 1 are still not up and running.

Those initial retailers were chosen through a lottery to open Ontario’s first brick-and-mortar cannabis stores—when the drug became legal recreationally last October it was only available online through the government-run Ontario Cannabis Store—and that lottery system has faced criticism for not including a merit component.

In other Canadian jurisdictions allowing for the private sale of cannabis, successful retailers often include convenience stores. For instance, of the 24 retailers selected to qualify for cannabis sales in Newfoundland and Labrador, one is a convenience store in Labrador City. Last summer, a Co-op gas-bar in Calgary was given the green light.

Convenience operators in Ontario are watching the situation. One of the questions is whether the government will allow cannabis stores-within-a-store or insist they be entirely separate.

Either way, convenience-store operators like Alimentation Couche-Tard, which has a large number of Ontario locations, are well positioned.

“We have the ability to sell this product while meeting all government requirements (and) we can train our staff on verifying the identity of all consumers, regardless of their age,” Couche-Tard founder and executive chairman Alain Bouchard foreshadowed at the company’s 2017 annual meeting.

In February 2019, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. entered into a multi-year trademark license agreement with Canopy Growth Corporation, one of the winners of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s Expression of Interest Application Lottery, who was preparing to operate a “Tweed” branded retail store in London, Ont. The store opened in May in a shopping plaza that is also home to Walmart, LCBO, Beer Store, Movie Theatre, Farm Boy and others.

In a release, the new partners stated: “Through this partnership, Alimentation Couche-Tard is aiming to lean on Canopy Growth’s cannabis expertise and leverage its experience with other age-restricted products to focus on the safe, responsible and lawful sale of cannabis, consistent with the legislation enacted by the federal and provincial governments. As two Canadian-made and globally-positioned companies, the London location will serve as an important entry to market that could lead to future international opportunities.”

“Alimentation Couche-Tard is excited about taking a leadership role in the development of cannabis retailing excellence in this major Canadian market. We believe the Ontario Cannabis Store and private retailers will co-exist under a tightly regulated framework with common goals to protect public health and safety,” said Couche-Tard president and CEO Brian Hannasch.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario will hold a lottery on Aug. 20 for the next 42 retail store authorizations. Another eight stores will be located on First Nations reserves through a separate process.

For this lottery, applicants will have to show evidence that if they are selected, they have already secured retail space that could be used as a store and that they have enough capital to open it, the AGCO said.

One licenced cannabis producer said the latest initiative will position the industry for significant sales growth in Canada’s largest province.

“After the first 25 stores began to open in Ontario, the industry saw overall sales of cannabis basically double,” Dr. Avtar Dhillon, executive chairman and president of Emerald Health Therapeutics said in a statement.

“Adult-use consumers are showing a preference for going into a physical location where they can interact with educated, savvy budtenders and we anticipate that the further expansion of physical stores in Ontario and Canada will strongly serve the growth of legal cannabis sales.”

The Ontario government decided on an initial round of just 25 stores, citing national supply issues, but that appears to be easing.

“Our government is continuing to take a responsible approach to opening cannabis stores across Ontario, allowing private sector businesses to build a safe and convenient retail system to combat the illegal market,” Finance Minister Rod Phillips said in a statement.

“With marginal improvements in national supply, we are proceeding to issue up to 50 new cannabis store licences.”

Attorney General Doug Downey said in a statement that a phased approach is still necessary.

“While the federal supply issues persist, we cannot in good conscience issue an unlimited number of licences to businesses,” he wrote.

Omar Khan, a vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies who advises several clients in the cannabis industry, said the announcement is a positive step, but called for further action.

“If the government wants to eliminate the illicit market they will need to ensure that consumers are able to access legal product offerings conveniently and in a timely manner,” he said in a statement.

“This means moving aggressively towards an open licensing system as soon as the national supply situation permits, and working with the private sector to significantly improve the current online customer retail experience.”

The 42 new stores selected through the lottery will be distributed regionally, with 13 in the city of Toronto, six going to the Greater Toronto Area, 11 in the west region, seven going to the east region, and in the north, one each in Kenora, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and Timmins.

Stores will be allowed to open in any municipality regardless of population if the community did not opt out of having cannabis stores.

The process for First Nation stores will start in July on a first-come, first-served basis.

With files from Canadian Press.