The weed man of St. John’s
Thomas Clarke aiming to be the first to make a legal sale in Canada
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.”
Thomas Clarke is hoping to be the first independent seller to legally sell pot for recreational use in Canada on Wednesday.