If cannabis became legal tomorrow, the majority of consumers across the country would still have to call their dealer or pop into a black market dispensary to buy it. That’s because most provinces are several months away from having legal stores up and running and logistical systems in place to get regulated cannabis on shelves.
In Saint John, N.B., however, a short jaunt from downtown brings you to a strip mall where one of the provincial cannabis agency’s Apple-store inspired dispensaries is almost ready for business: the minimalist layout and artwork on the walls have been finalized, the electronics have been installed.
“We have 11 stores ready to go,” said Brian Harriman, chief executive of NB Liquor, the provincial crown corporation that will oversee Cannabis NB and its 20 planned stores.
“If the bill was proclaimed today, and we had four weeks, we could have staff and product available and stores open. We’re ready, our e-commerce system is ready, home delivery is ready to go.”
The province’s retail readiness is emblematic of a larger bet New Brunswick is making on cannabis. Politicians, business people and bureaucrats alike have latched onto the opportunity with a sense of purpose that is surprising for an industry that was taboo until recently.
“New Brunswick is in a situation where it needs to lean into economic development opportunities,” explained Derek Riedle, a New Brunswick native and head of cannabis media company Civilized Worldwide Inc., which hosted the first World Cannabis Congress in Saint John earlier this week.
“We know what the demographics are in this province and we know where the population has headed over the past few years. That gives the government license to perhaps put out its neck a little bit further.”
That extends all the way to the premier’s office, which has backed a homegrown approach to the sector.
“It’s going to be produced somewhere in the country, so we want it to be produced here,” premier Brian Gallant told a packed conference room at the event.
The province has been aggressively courting licensed producers, offering subsidies, cheap power and an “ecosystem” devoted to cannabis, which includes workforce training programs at community colleges and cannabis-focused research chairs at the province’s universities.
A big part of this ecosystem is the province’s Research and Productivity Council, a crown corporation that helps private companies with science and engineering projects.
RPC’s labs were some of the earliest licensed by Health Canada to test cannabis for things like pesticides and THC levels. Its scientists do testing for around half of Canada’s licensed producers, according to Eric Cook, RPC’s executive director.
“Most of the LPs (licensed producers) are not chemists, and they really didn’t have a good grasp of what was being tested and why and how it was done, so it was an opportunity for us,” said Cook.
RPC has hired 54 new people in the past two years, largely to handle testing and product development for cannabis companies.
So far, four licensed producers have set up shop in the province: Organigram Holdings Inc. and Zenabis Ltd., both headquartered in New Brunswick, and Ontario-based Canopy Growth Corp. and Aphria Inc., which have established local operations.
“Everyone in the province knows that the government is behind us,” said Organigram’s chief executive Greg Engel.
It’s not hard to see why. Organigram has hired 280 people, and there are upward of 130 contractors working on the company’s facility in Moncton, said Engle.
“They’re locked up for the next two years working on our expansion, so those are skilled trades people. It’s the largest project in the province at this point, so it’s been huge for job creation,” he added.
Cannabis NB expects to begin hiring people to staff its stores as soon as the federal government passes Bill C-45, and is looking at 200 employees, 180 at the retail level.
“We’ve targeted 3,000 jobs in the sector in the next four years. For a province this size, it’s pretty healthy,” said Stephen Lund, chief executive of Opportunities New Brunswick, the crown corporation in charge of promoting business development in the province.
“We don’t have this big bureaucracy where we have to talk to 58 different departments. We just see an opportunity and we go for it,” said Lund.