The weed man of St. John’s

Thomas Clarke aim­ing to be the first to make a le­gal sale in Canada

Toronto Star - - CANADA - BEN RAYNER STAFF RE­PORTER

POR­TU­GAL COVE, NL— New­found­land’s unique po­si­tion in the North At­lantic one half-hour ahead of the rest of the coun­try means there will be a des­per­ate crush of re­tail­ers clam­our­ing to record the first-ever le­gal sale of cannabis in Canada on the morn­ing of Oct. 17, 2018, but lo­cal lore will judge Thomas Clarke as the home­grown folk hero who got out in front of the rest.

Brag­ging rights to that his­toric first sale will be granted to one of the hand­ful of pot shops set to open in down­town St. John’s and neigh­bour­ing Mount Pearl, slightly to the east of Clarke’s bud­ding THC Dis­tri­bu­tion shop in Por­tu­gal Cove — a pic­turesque ocean­side burg just a hair’s breadth west of St. John’s and a mere 26 kilo­me­tres from Cape Spear, the east­ern­most point in North Amer­ica.

Cor­po­rate-mar­i­juana gi­ant Canopy Growth is al­ready mak­ing a big noise about how one of its own out­lets on Wa­ter St. will be the first place to sell a le­gal gram of cannabis in Canada.

CEO Bruce Lin­ton will be on the ground to mark the mo­ment be­fore “end­ing his day at our head­quar­ters here in Smiths Falls (Ont.) for a huge cel­e­bra­tion,” a Canopy rep­re­sen­ta­tive af­firms.

That hasn’t stopped Clarke from do­ing a mas­ter­ful job of steal­ing Canopy’s thun­der in the lo­cal me­dia — even in the pages of long-lived Amer­i­can pot­head bible High Times mag­a­zine — for months now. And he’s still at it.

“I’ll be the first in­de­pen­dent, lo­cally owned guy to make a sale in Canada, and I think that’s a way bet­ter story than Tweed sells their weed to their . . . CEO,” he laughed good-na­turedly down the line from Por­tu­gal Cove over Thanks­giv­ing week­end, audi­bly beam­ing at the news that the St. John’s CBC-Ra­dio af­fil­i­ate would be broad­cast­ing both its morn­ing show and its noon-hour call-in show, Cross Talk, live from THC Dis­tri­bu­tion on le­gal­iza­tion day.

Any way you cut it, Clarke’s suc­cess­ful bid to turn his former home at1614 Por­tu­gal Cove Rd. into a le­git­i­mate shop sell­ing cannabis and cannabis ac­ces­sories counts as a vic­tory.

This has ar­guably been his des­tiny for most of his 43 years, even though his birth cer­tifi­cate might quib­ble with his as­ser­tions that he chose the name THC Dis­tri­bu­tion for his busi­ness be­cause his mid­dle name is “Herb.”

Clarke, 43, and a fa­ther of three, has put in his time in the mar­i­juana game and even done time for it.

He’s been sell­ing weed in and around St. John’s since he was in ju­nior high, got busted at 18, when a cus­tomer got caught with two ounces of hashish and rat­ted him out as the source.

De­spite never ac­tu­ally get­ting pinched with any phys­i­cal prod­uct him­self, Clarke spent 30 days in pri­son for his trou­bles the next year.

He’s been a pub­lic voice for rea­son­able cannabis laws ever since and, once the Trudeau gov­ern­ment de­cided to fol­low through on its elec­tion prom­ise to make weed le­gal, also be­came a con­stant pres­ence in the St. John’s me­dia and in the faces of lo­cal politi­cians de­mand­ing that New­found­land grow­ers and busi­ness own­ers get a fair share of the pie.

His ex­pe­ri­ence on the file, as it were, no doubt con­trib­uted to the suc­cess of the strin­gent, multi-faceted busi­ness plan he sub­mit­ted to the New­found­land and Labrador Liquor Cor­po­ra­tion (NLC).

“I’ve been around the cannabis in­dus­try for 30 years. I started sell­ing weed when I was in Grade 8. It’s al­ways been my pas­sion and some­thing I’ve been a so­cial-jus­tice ad­vo­cate for my whole life,” he ex­plained.

“So once Justin Trudeau was elected and I saw that, holy s—t, this is re­ally hap­pen­ing I said, ‘I have to start talk­ing to peo­ple about this’ so New­found­land could have a good foothold when le­gal­iza­tion hap­pened — and that we went in the right di­rec­tion, which I think would be hav­ing lo­cal prod­uct and lo­cal busi­ness own­ers open­ing shops. That’s a way to have the cannabis in­dus­try grow in New­found­land and try to keep the in­dus­try as lo­cal­ized as pos­si­ble.”

Most of THC Dis­tri­bu­tion’s ini­tial, im­me­di­ate com­pe­ti­tion will con­sist of minia­ture NLC-run out­lets at­tached to Loblaws-owned Do­min­ion su­per­mar­kets around the city, On­tario-based Canopy’s five planned store­fronts in St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Con­cep­tion Bay South and a few scat­tered weed-re­tail coun­ters in con­ve­nience stores and “well­ness” bou­tiques.

Clarke is the only per­son who re­ceived a li­cence for a “stand­alone, strictly cannabis shop” on the Avalon Penin­sula — there’s an­other on the way in Labrador and one more to come on the west coast of New­found­land. He’s count­ing on New­found­land pride to put him over the top.

“The op­tions for cannabis for 300,000 peo­ple on the Avalon are go­ing to be ei­ther the Do­min­ion gro­cery store or the Tweed/Canopy weed-cor­po­ra­tion gi­ants, or the lo­cal cannabis ex­pert in Por­tu­gal Cove,” he says. “So I think I’m gonna do OK.”

Clarke hasn’t had the eas­i­est time get­ting THC Dis­tri­bu­tion off the ground. This past Au­gust, a pe­ti­tion cir­cu­lated by some of his neigh­bours and last-minute fret­ting by the lo­cal coun­cil over his busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tion had his $125,000 in­vest­ment up in the air.

The Por­tu­gal Cove-St. Philip’s mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment swung back around to his side on Oct. 2, vot­ing 5-2 in favour of him open­ing his doors on Oct. 17.

Now, like every other le­gal pot re­tailer in Canada, he’s stuck wor­ry­ing about how many of the li­censed pro­duc­ers he’s re­quired to buy his stock from through the NLC will ac­tu­ally have prod­uct avail­able in time for le­gal­iza­tion day.

The mar­gins are go­ing to be tight any way you cut it, since New­found­land law al­lows for only an 8-per-cent com­mis­sion on prod­uct sold. Of the $66,847 Clarke has spent on Canopy weed for open­ing day, he only stands to make about $5,000.

He says if he’s not ready to open on the 17th, it’ll break his heart. “But I’m 99.999 per cent sure I will be,” he says.

“The NLC had seven li­censed pro­duc­ers signed up, and only two of them have weed to ship for the 17th. I know I’ll have Canopy stuff and I think I’ll have Au­rora, but that’s it. Every­one else has de­lays be­cause of pack­ag­ing prob­lems or prob­lems with the weed they grew or prob­lems with their Health Canada li­cences for sell­ing it and stuff, so there’s a lot of ... tan­gly prob­lems down here. If I don’t run out of weed on the first day, I’m pretty sure I will on the sec­ond or third day.

“It’s def­i­nitely a long-haul ven­ture.”

PAUL DALY THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Thomas Clarke is hop­ing to be the first in­de­pen­dent seller to legally sell pot for recre­ational use in Canada on Wed­nes­day.

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