Ontario delays start date of retail cannabis sales

TORONTO (Reuters) - Ontario’s newly elected conservative government said on Monday it will delay the start date of recreational marijuana sales in the province and will allow private retailers to sell cannabis rather than government-run stores.

FILE PHOTO: A worker collects cuttings from a marijuana plant at the Canopy Growth Corporation facility in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

Ontario will allow private retailers to sell recreational marijuana starting on April 1, officials from the province’s Progressive Conservative government told a news conference, abandoning its predecessor’s plans for government-controlled stores starting on Oct. 17.

While Canada will be the first Group of Seven nation to legalize recreational cannabis in October, it has chosen to make a cautious start. Many provincial governments, including the previous Liberal government in Ontario, have planned a small number of stores to start with and tight control over supply.

Ontario’s new conservative Premier Doug Ford, however, prefers a more laissez-faire approach and had hinted at a shift to a private retail model before his election in June. In March, he told CBC Radio he did not believe in “the government sticking their hands in our lives all the time.”

The province will begin consultations with several groups including businesses, consumer groups, municipalities and law enforcement next week and will examine the retail models planned by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said at the news conference.

Between October and April, cannabis will be available only online, Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said at the news conference, which was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“The system we’re proposing marks a significant departure from the approach of the previous government,” Fedeli said. “Implementing this new approach will take time.”

The initial Liberal government plan was for 40 stores across Ontario in the first year, rising to 150 by the end of 2020 - all run by the provincial liquor board.

Fedeli and Mulroney did not say how many retail licenses will be issued or whether any of the multitudes of illegal dispensaries that currently operate will be able to apply, but added that more details will be released as the consultation advances.

The province will remain the wholesaler to retailers under the new framework, similar to the previous one.

Fedeli emphasized that safety and prevention of sales to underaged users will remain paramount.

“If a private retailer is caught selling cannabis to any underage buyer even once, their license is done,” he said. “And for those engaged in the underground today, our message is simple: stop.”

Reporting by Nichola Saminather in Toronto; Editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis