First two northern Ontario pot shops pushing towards opening next month

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Right now, northern Ontario's first cannabis store is part high end retail outlet, part construction site.

Crews are busy getting the Highlife on Marcus Drive in Sudbury ready to open to customers on April 1. Company spokesperson Eddie Grinberg says they expect to hire as many as 30 people, with a few extra for the first few weeks when long lines are expected.

Highlife already has 17 stores in southern Ontario, but this New Sudbury location in an old shoe store near the Silver City movie theatres will be the first licensed to sell cannabis, rather than just smoking accessories.

"We never thought it would be in Sudbury," Grinberg says.

Highlife put its name into the cannabis license lottery held in January, but it didn't get pulled.

Instead, it has partnered with northern Ontario lottery winner Anton Lucic, and chose to set up shop in Sudbury because of the population and proximity to the company's offices in the Toronto area.

The provincial government is hoping to have the first batch of 25 stores open on April 1.

Grinberg says the only potential obstacle for the Sudbury Highlife store is bureaucratic delays.

"We will definitely be ready to open, the only damper will be on the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario approval and Ontario Cannabis Store providing the product," he says.

Of course, there are already some dispensaries selling cannabis in First Nations in northern Ontario, many of them operating illegally.

Grinberg predicts that once the provincially licensed stores are up and running, the government will get more serious about shutting down unlicensed pot shops.

"I think there'll be more pressure to close them down. At the end of the day, the goal of the government is to have a legal cannabis market, not an illegal cannabis market," he says. 

Highlife's other competition will come from the other northern Ontario licence winner.

Saturninus Partners, a group of two tax lawyers and two accountants from southern Ontario and Vancouver, threw their name into the lottery and are now planning a Canna Cabana store for Sudbury's south end. 

"It would be a fib to say that we don't appreciate that there's a lot of money in the industry, but it wasn't the overall driver," says Michael Hogewoning, one of the four partners. 

"We've already got money. This is a new experience."

Hogewoning says that he and his partners are "familiar with the product" and so far are "relishing the weirdness of the industry."

He says they also selected Sudbury over other northern Ontario cities because it was the largest centre in the region and because of the "huge demand for the product up there."

"We're all purchasing from the same pot, no pun intended, so it'll all come down to customer experience," Hogewoning says.

The Canna Cabana store is still working its way through the licensing process, with public commenting on the proposed location open until March 22. That location is a former dollar store two doors down from the Shoppers Drug Mart at the Four Corners.

Hogewoning says they don't expect to make the April 1 deadline and are instead aiming to be open by April 20.

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