Just one government cannabis shop ready for Oct. 17 in B.C.

British Columbia’s public safety minister says the province will meet demand for recreational marijuana with only one government-run shop and an online store when the drug is legalized next month.

Mike Farnworth also defended the province’s approach to legalization Monday after it announced that only one brick-and-mortar B.C. Cannabis Store in Kamloops will be open when recreational pot becomes legal Oct. 17.

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“This is the largest public- policy shift in this country in decades and it’s not something that just happens overnight,” Farnworth said in an interview.

“The fact that we went out and said we’re going to consult with local government and make sure that communities are involved right from the get-go was the right approach to take.”

Farnworth said the Kamloops store is just the start and he expects other public and private shops will open in the weeks and months after legalization.

The site in Kamloops did not require a rezoning application and the province paid the city $5,000 for a business licence, plus an application fee of $1,600.

Some communities have done a lot of work to prepare for legalization, but others have not, and many are waiting until after B.C.’s municipal elections on Oct. 20 to start the approval process, Farnworth said.

The City of Victoria has established a regulatory regime for pot shops that Mayor Lisa Helps has said gives the municipality a head start on approving cannabis retail outlets.

The presence of only one government store on the day of legalization will be a boon to private cannabis businesses, said Alex Robb, general manager for Trees, the first cannabis retailer to be rezoned under Victoria’s new rules in 2017.

“I do think this advantages private retailers, and the reason for that is I think there’s going to be a lot of space and possibilities open in B.C. for private retailers post-legalization,” Robb said.

Robb said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the private sector is able to move faster than the provincial government, given that many cannabis companies have an established management team and operations staff. Retail cannabis stores operating in the shadow market before legalization already have established suppliers and built up a loyal customer base.

The B.C. government began hiring its cannabis regulatory staff in the spring.

“The thing that prevents [government stores] from opening shouldn’t be lack of supply, it’s logistics,” Robb said. “They need to hire an entire broad company before they can even open one store. That’s the reason for what has been seen by many as a delay, but is actually the functioning of a government as it hires a whole new division.”

The B.C. Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch began accepting applications for non-medical cannabis retail licences in August, which many private retailers said was too tight a time frame to be approved by Oct. 17.

It’s still a possibility that some private stores will be ready to open on the day pot becomes legal, Farnworth said, adding that the province has received about 115 paid applications and notified local governments where those applicants are based. Once a municipal government decides to support an application, the province does a background check and issues a licence, he said.

Farnworth said he expects to see government stores on Vancouver Island and in communities across the province.

He said the province will have plenty of supply and a significant variety of pot. It has signed agreements with more than 30 licensed producers of medical cannabis, including Tilray Inc., Aurora Cannabis Inc. and Canopy Growth Corp.

Ian Dawkins, president of the Cannabis Commerce Association of Canada, said he expects about a half-dozen private retailers will be able to open their doors in the first month and a half of legalization.

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