This is welcome news for dispensaries that were told last week that they had been removed from the province’s list of essential businesses, which effectively shut the stores down until further notice.
Following advice from its Chief Medical Officer of Health, Ontario updated its list of essential businesses April 3, omitting cannabis retailers from the roster of businesses that could remain operational during the province’s COVID-19 response.
Prior to the updated emergency order, cannabis retailers had been operating as essential businesses, but the change left the Ontario Cannabis Store, the province’s government-owned online retailer, as the only outlet authorized to serve Ontario’s patients and consumers.
“Ontario and Alberta are both similar and a little bit unique in that the only legal online retailers are owned by the government,” John Carle, executive director for the Alberta Cannabis Council, told Cannabis Business Times. “Their regulator and our regulator both own an online cannabis retail website, and they’re the only ones allowed to sell it online. They’re the only ones that are allowed to deliver product to homes. So, people [could] still get their cannabis—they just [had] to do it through the government website.”
The Alberta Cannabis Council has joined forces with other associations across the country to push for nationwide policy that would allow Canada’s cannabis retailers to operate under a delivery-only model for the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis.
“It would be much better for everyone’s health and much safer for everyone if, like the alcohol or the pharmaceuticals [industries], we could deliver product,” Carle said. “Some of the provinces have [allowed delivery] already, such as British Columbia, but not ours and not Ontario.”
Now, under the updated emergency order, Ontario’s cannabis retailers can conduct transactions online or by phone, BNN Bloomberg reported, and customers can pick up their orders at the dispensaries. Retailers can also deliver orders directly to customers, provided their staff is trained under a regulated provincial training program operated by CannSell, which is run by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, according to the news outlet.
The order remains in effect for 14 days, BNN Bloomberg reported, but could be extended.
The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) clarified April 6 that Canada’s cannabis businesses are eligible for small business loans and wage subsidy programs, which Carle said will undoubtedly help Ontario’s retailers—as well as the broader Canadian cannabis industry—as they adjust their business models during this uncertain time.
Despite this access to federal aid, Carle acknowledged that the shutdown—although brief—presented a difficult situation for many of Ontario’s retailers that, up until last week, assumed they would be able to continue their normal operations as essential businesses.
“It’s got to be a scary time for them, and our hearts go out to those who thought they would get to stay open and then suddenly had to close,” he said.
The outlook for these businesses is undoubtedly less bleak under Ontario’s new emergency order, which will also help keep the province’s illicit market in check, according to Nathan Mison, VP of Government, Media & Stakeholder Relations for Fire & Flower, which operates several dispensaries across Canada.
“Not only are we an incredibly young sector, but we’re also a young sector that has an entrenched, well-established illegal market on the sidelines, and I think that’s something that we need to continue to tell governments and make sure that we get across, is that we are different than a lot of other sectors that have been around longer,” Mison told Cannabis Business Times. “It needs to be thought well and long and hard about the fact that we’re displacing a ferocious, entrenched illegal market, and we need [the government’s] help to do it. That’s going to require support during this crisis and regulatory changes and policies that makes sense so we can continue to compete when we come out of this crisis."