Province lifts limits on cannabis store ownership

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Alberta’s limit on cannabis shop ownership to 15 per cent of the province’s total number of stores is going up in smoke.

On Nov. 1, the cap imposed by the former NDP government, which also set a maximum number of outlets owned by a single entity at 37, will disappear.

Two years into recreational marijuana legalization, the fledgling market is mature and stable enough to allow a move to reduce bureaucracy and enhance competition, Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) said in an email.

“Removing the ownership cap is part of government’s red-tape reduction strategy aimed at creating new opportunities for businesses in Alberta and removing unnecessary regulatory barriers,” it said.

“This change helps cannabis retailers promote a healthy retail trade that can compete with the illicit market on price, which helps protect Albertans.”

The original limits were put in place to ensure smaller players would confidently enter the market, and the plan was always to review that policy within five years, said the AGLC.

“Now, with more than 500 licensed retail locations provincewide — and more than any other jurisdiction in Canada — the decision was made to lift the 15 per cent (cap),” said the commission.

The AGLC has approved 527 stores, nearly half the total in Canada, and there are no plans to limit their number.

While some retailers, including smaller ones, said they’re confident the change won’t hurt them, some are concerned it’ll allow some players to monopolize the market and drive them out of a business that’s already challenging.

“There was interest for the larger operations to get a larger share of the market,” said one retailer, who didn’t want to give their name for fear of harming their relationship with the AGLC.

“It’s difficult — (margins) are skinny and it means things are going to get a lot tougher.”

The manager of an independent shop in the city’s northwest voiced wariness of the cap removal, but added he hopes his store can retain its customer base.

“I hope it doesn’t turn into a situation where everything is Aurora or Nova Cannabis-owned,” said Jamie Ouellette of Bow Cannabis, at 6305 Bowness Rd. N.W., referring to two larger players in the Alberta cannabis retail scene.

“I hope we still have lots of mom and pop stores because we can cater to what our customers want, like the people here in Bowness.”

But another single-store operator said he’s confident fewer restrictions on outlet ownership is balanced by other regulations.

“Having a cap was nice but, two years into legalization, it won’t have that much of a difference,” said Shawn Bali, owner of Omkara Cannabis at 500 Royal Oak Dr. N.W.

“There’s still a minimum distance of 300 metres between stores.”

He said the fiscal and regulatory hurdles to opening new outlets will also regulate the amount of competition.

The UCP government’s move is a necessary evolution in Alberta’s cannabis market, said Amber Craig, chief marketing officer for Four20 Premium Market.

“It’s been a private market from the beginning and it creates more opportunity,” said Craig, whose company operates 14 stores in Alberta.

She said the decision could someday have an effect on her company’s expansion plans, though a current goal of 20 Alberta stores wouldn’t come close to the outgoing 15 per cent limit.

A growing market for cannabis driven by a widening variety of products means there’s room for more players, even if that means some of them are increasingly larger, said Craig.

Proof that there’s room to grow, she said, is the far greater number of liquor stores in Alberta, which now number about 1,500.

Craig noted legal cannabis prices have already been falling and that the province’s decision will likely help that.

Doing away with the cap is also happening as some retailers are bowing out while some larger players move in.

Late last summer, the country’s largest cannabis company, Canopy Growth, actively moved into the Alberta retail scene with its Tweed and Tokyo Smoke outlets.

“There’s certainly been some consolidations happening and I’m sure that’ll continue to happen,” said Craig.

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