It’s High Time

“A once-illegal substance. Heated debate about whether the public should be allowed to buy it in government-operated stores. Finally, the decision to make it available to those deemed responsible enough to consume it. When the first stores open in select communities, there are long lineups. Some customers gratefully grab their purchase; others grumble about the confusing new rules, the stock shortages, the unfairness of government monopolies.”

You would be forgiven for thinking you know what this paragraph is describing. But it is not, in fact, about legal cannabis shops opening up across Canada. Written by Jamie Bradburn for a piece posted on TVO.org near the end of 2017, this is the beginning of a “look back” at how the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s (LCBO) first day of business unfolded on June 1, 1927. “The original system was designed to make the experience of purchasing alcohol feel as shameful as possible, and to allow the province to pry into the private habits of Ontarians,” writes Bradburn. “The stores, generally located away from main streets, resembled banks. Clerks were stationed behind wire grills.”

I am old enough to have vague memories of environments like that, and as the cannabis news narrative continues to unfold, I’m experiencing those memories again. Why does it feel like Ontario is setting itself up for a repeat of this embarrassing Puritan-minded policy making regarding the roll out of the retail cannabis landscape? The plan started out as a chain of outlets under the control of the LCBO, but that was scrapped by Premier Doug Ford in favour of private licensed operators. But in December, Queen’s Park decided that Ontario could only handle 25 of those. Who they will be and where they will be located? Who knows for sure? But anyone living in the shadow of Ford Nation should not be surprised by unannounced and head-scratching policy course corrections.

License-lottery winners and location regulations aside, I think to really know where the Ontario government’s head is at in terms of policing cannabis culture will be to look at the actual rules governing what these retail enterprises will look like. It took almost 60 years to get from wire grills and paper slips to the award-winning boutique experiences the LCBO is known for now. Will we see the same enlightenment afforded to an industry still ruffling a lot of feathers?

As opinions surrounding cannabis culture eased considerably in the last two decades, stores purveying such items began popping up, but their designs seemed rooted in an awkward pirouette between roughness and refinement, forever winking at an illicit history. If widespread cultural acceptance is the goal moving forward, that aesthetic won’t help this industry. But maybe it won’t matter, because that other green rules all, and at the end of the day we know the opportunity with cannabis in unprecedented, probably bigger than the end of Prohibition. And since it is product they are selling, the winners also include investors and landlords in the CRE domain,” says Gaurav Mathur, capital markets research manager at JLL. “Canada has a long runway of growth up ahead and as Provinces crack the cannabis business, we expect the good times to roll for the Canadian industrial CRE sector.”

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