Story by: Max Asper and Fakiha Baig
The future of current dispensary owners remains in limbo and is full of uncertainty as Canada becomes the second country in the world to legalize marijuana.
Marijuana activists say the provincial government has let private dispensary owners down by forcing them to close shop as the country welcomes a legal pot market this Wednesday through the government-run Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS).
“It’s very strange for the government to say they are legalizing cannabis which means you have to stop selling it,” said Jodie Emery, owner of Jodie’s Joint in Kensington Market and co-owner of Cannabis Culture in Vancouver, B.C.
In August, the Conversative government announced they will be allowing for private brick and mortar retailers, but they will have to apply for a license through the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which will be available in April 2019.
This means that, in the meantime, dispensaries currently in operation will have to bring their businesses to a halt, leaving business owners and employees high and dry.
According to Emery, along with forcing dispensaries to shut their doors, the government is enforcing a strict and expensive application process for legality which is pushing small businesses out of the market.
Although the government has not revealed the specifics of the application process, Emery says she has begun speaking to lawyers in Ontario and the price tag is quite daunting.
“Prospective owners will have to foot the bill for expensive legal and administrative costs,” she said.
Emery operated dispensaries in B.C. and says it’s an expensive, complicated undertaking, and she thinks Ontario’s process will be even worse.
According to Emery, getting the legal work done would cost her $20,000 per location in Toronto. Adding a pricey licensing process while asking businesses to shut down because they are technically illegal under the backdrop of legalization is unfair.
In B.C., the licensing fee to legally operate a dispensary is $7,500, a first year licensing fee is $1,500, and an annual renewal fee per dispensary is $1,500, according to B.C.’s government website.
B.C. says they are also adding a biannual mandatory security screening fee which will bring the total to more than $10,500 to obtain a license for operate a dispensary, not including legal fees.
If dispensary owners don’t shut down and apply through government channels, “they’re going to get arrested and go to jail. They are being locked out and locked up from the system that’s being created,” Emery said.
“The rules in place make it so expensive and so difficult to get a legal license that really for most people this is really just the end.”
Along with the costs, “in B.C. you have to prove you have networth — I don’t have net worth. You have to prove you can float a business for six-months to 12-months without making any money. I can’t do that. Most people can’t.”
In B.C., dispensaries are prohibited from operating within 300 metres from schools, community centres, youth facilities and other cannabis outlets. Emery says the Ontario government will be increasing that to 500 metres, while “kids can buy candy where cigarettes are sold and they go to restaurants where slushy boozy drinks are sold to adults but nobody is freaking out about that.”
“[Current dispensary owners] are facing serious penalties and that’s what is so wrong about this. Why are they calling it an illegal market when we are supposed to be legalizing it?”
“If it’s legal there shouldn’t be anything illegal,” Emery said.“That’s not fair, that’s what we are supposed to be legalizing.”
Along with the fees and various restrictions, the government says they will be working closely with private dispensaries to make sure they follow provincial guidelines, such as prohibiting the sale of cannabis to anyone under the age of 19.
“Ontario will begin to consult on a number of rules all retailers will be mandated to follow including set hours of operation and staff training,” the office of the attorney general said in a news release.
“Federal law lays out numerous other retail requirements, including restricted advertising, that products are not visible to children, and that all sales must be made over the counter.”