'The government doesn't know how to sell drugs': Does Nova Scotia really need more cannabis stores?

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For Michelle, driving to the closest provincially regulated cannabis store isn’t worth the gas money. Her closest option is nearly 70 kilometres from her home in Lawrencetown, N.S., a village of 668 people. 

“We started growing just because of where we’re situated,” said Michelle, who asked to keep her last name private. “It’s not convenient to go to the NSLC, and I found the quality just wasn’t there for what you’re paying.” Before that, she bought from a “backyard dealer” who also grew his own. 

On Feb. 14, the provincial government announced plans to more than double the number of Nova Scotia Liquor Commission (NSLC) stores selling cannabis products, from 12 to 26, by the end of March 2021. It’s an effort to reach consumers like Michelle in remote communities scattered across the province. 

“We have recognized that online sales so far have not addressed areas of the province where there was a gap and it is apparent that new customers want the in-store experience,” finance and treasury board minister Karen Casey said in a press release. “We feel that opening more stores is the most effective way to deal with the illicit market, protect our children and keep communities safe.”

According to a survey commissioned by the NSLC in April of 2019, 25 per cent of Nova Scotians have bought cannabis since legalization in October of 2018. While 41 per cent bought from the NSLC only, 40 per cent said they bought from the NSLC and the unregulated market. The other 19 per cent avoided the NSLC completely. 

“Key reasons customers purchase from the illicit market: Price, product quality and selection and convenient access,” say the research highlights. NSLC reps hoped online sales would fill the location gap, but in 2018-2019, those sales accounted for just one per cent of its $33.2 million revenue. 

Nova Scotians can buy cannabis in government-owned and operated alcohol shops and a single stand-alone cannabis store. In many rural areas, the NSLC operates “agency stores” — small spaces in convenience stores and gas stations retailing alcohol. But the province says it doesn’t plan to offer agency cannabis sales.

Instead, the NSLC will issue a request for proposals for store renovations to accommodate cannabis sales by April. Some will open this fall, and the rest by the end of March 2021. All of the new locations [see a map of the new stores] will be within existing liquor stores. Until then, 48 per cent of Nova Scotians live 10 kilometres from their nearest store.

Another challenge is product selection and a consistent supply of them. The provincial cannabis corp. was unable to meet demand after the October 2018 rollout. Some stores closed for days at a time, awaiting stock replenishment. And on December 23, 2019, NSLC started selling edibles and vape pens. But many stores sold out before closing time on Christmas Eve. 

“When the guy delivers at my apartment, he randomly places business card throughout the lobby as a form of guerrilla marketing.”

“We knew that there would be the same issues with the edible, extracts and topicals,” said Beverly Ware, NSLC spokesperson. At the time of this writing, the NSLC’s online portal listed 10 edible options. Three were sold out, and three of the seven available options were available in stores outside of the Halifax Regional Municipality, the province’s largest city. “The licensed producers have had a lot to do to get their products ready for the market,” Ware said. “It’s a gradual introduction of products to the market and this product assortment is going to grow.”

Now is the appropriate time for expansion, Ware said. The corporation needed to gain experience in the market, so the initial store openings were tagged to the most populated parts of the province. Which left people like Michelle to find their own solutions.

For Haligonian Scott, who asked to withhold his last name, price and convenience are a key factor for him. He and his partner own a car, but his partner often takes it to work. Instead of walking to an NSLC location, Scott said he logs into one of several ]unregulated delivery service’s e-commerce sites and has cannabis delivered to his door within two hours.

He said that after some illicit storefronts were raided by police, several of those businesses went online and have found other ways to reach customers.

“When the guy delivers at my apartment, he randomly places business card throughout the lobby as a form of guerrilla marketing,” he said.

Prices are competitive, too. Dried flower is $7 per gram to $10 for the most potent flower strains, undercutting the NSLC’s prices, where a single gram costs $8.49–$15. The site also offers a wide array of edibles, topicals and not-yet-available hash products. While price is Scott’s key factor, he also appreciates that black market offerings use significantly less packaging than government cannabis.

“The government doesn’t know how to sell drugs,” he said.

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