Waiting in the cannabis queue

Roger Kameka renovates a unit leased in the Wiltshire Plaza in anticipation of approval for Bluewater Joint, one of seven cannabis shops hoping to open in Sarnia. Cathy Dobson

Eleonora Plata is frustrated that there is no way of knowing when her family’s application to open a cannabis store in Sarnia will be approved.

She’s not alone. Seven applicants have asked for approval from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to locate cannabis shops in Sarnia. All are waiting in line.

And it’s a very long queue.

An AGCO spokesman told The Journal that approximately 1,000 applicants have asked for a Retail Operator Licence (ROL) since January. That’s when the provincial government switched gears from a lottery system to an open market system for private cannabis retail in Ontario.

There are also 900 applications for a Retail Store Authorization (RSA), according to the Raymond Kahnert, AGCO senior communications advisor.

Both an ROL and an RSA is required before a shop can operate. In Sarnia, all seven applicants are slowly working through the process, which is only able to approve about 20 a month.

As of Aug. 10, 135 cannabis stores were open in Ontario, but none in Sarnia.

Plata said she and her husband already operate a cannabis store in Ancaster. They opened there in February after randomly being chosen in the province’s second lottery a year ago.

Despite COVID-19 and having to move sales online, then cater to pandemic retail requirements, Ancaster Joint is doing well and employs 10, said Plata.

“We know what it takes to run a store,” she said.

She and her husband, Dennis Plata, live in Oakville but have family in Sarnia and like the community. Those ties and a sense that Sarnia “is a good market” prompted them to apply to open Bluewater Joint here. Applicants must have leased space, which the Platas have in the Wiltshire Plaza on Murphy Road.

The problem they face, along with all applicants, is that they are paying rent throughout the lengthy approval system.

“It is much more delayed than we expected,” Plata said.  “We had hoped we’d move faster through the queue because we’ve been through (the approval process) before with the first store.

“We already had our police and background checks.”

Kahnert said in an email he was unable to provide estimated dates or average times for the application process.

But he did say the AGCO is working to increase the number of RSAs that can be issued each month.

The seven cannabis stores applying to locate in Sarnia include:

–         Bluewater Joint at 940 Murphy Road;

–         Chill Cannabis at 1407 London Road;

–         Yield Cannabis Co. at 1000 Finch Drive;

–         Natures Buds on Lambton Mall Road;

–         The We Store on Exmouth Street;

–         The Cannabisery on Michener Road; and

–         Sessions Cannabis on Murphy Road.

An application for The Bend Cannabis on Main Street in Grand Bend is also pending.

When the Ontario government initially legalized cannabis, Attorney General Doug Downey said the decision would provide a safer, more reliable supply and combat the illicit market.

At first, a controversial lottery system was established that utilized computer software to randomly award licences to applicants. Twenty-five stores were licenced in January 2019 and another 50 six months later.

But none were located in Sarnia.

Municipal leaders, including Mayor Mike Bradley, complained that the lottery system was flawed.

Shortly afterward, the province announced that the market would be open to all starting in January 2020 but operators would need to be licensed and authorized before opening.