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One of the last provinces to stake a claim, Nova Scotia is racing to get in on the legal weed green rush.
“What would you do-o-o for a Klondike Bar?” sings the commercial, a nod to the epic discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896. In the ensuing gold rush, after news of the Klondike’s riches reached the outside world, tens of thousands of would-be golddiggers giddy’d up and headed for Canada’s north.
News of Justin Trudeau’s election win in 2015 on the back of his campaign promise for recreational cannabis legalization inspired the same starry-eyed fever in Canadian entrepreneurs. For those swapping traversing vast planes on horseback for navigating rigid government regulations, one thing is sure: Green is certainly the new gold.
As Canada flings itself towards cannabis legalization later this year, Nova Scotia growers and producers are trying their best to bulldoze through the bureaucracy. Thirty Nova Scotia companies have spent some part of the last five years in licensing limbo. With 2,000-page applications, a federal regulator wielding godlike power, the looming presence of money and no map to guide them, it’s a miracle half are still standing.
Back in 2001, the year Canada legalized medical cannabis, Andrew Robinson enrolled in one of the first cannabis agriculture programs in the country at Dalhousie’s Agricultural Campus in Truro. He thought he was too late, that commercialization would take off before he graduated.
Luckily for Robinson, now president and
master grower of Robinson’s Cannabis in Kentville, rec legalization is taking its sweet time. Canada didn’t have any medical cannabis licensed producers (LPs) until 2013; Nova Scotia’s first license wasn’t issued until November of 2017; and with the original goal of July 1 becoming politically unfeasible, there’s still no official date for national recreational legalization.
According to Health Canada, as of April 5, Nova Scotia has three LPs—a measly three percent of the national total. (Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories have none.) Robinson’s Cannabis is one of Nova Scotia’s 13 would-be producers stuck in licensing limbo; 13 NS applications have been rejected.
The province’s slow start is surprising if you consider that Nova Scotia has the nation’s highest per capita consumption of cannabis, according to StatsCan. It’s less surprising if you consider that fro-yo took off in Nova Scotia about five years after every other province, and there’s still no Uber.
In Canada’s easygoing Ocean Playground, the government is often hesitant to dive into new things. Myrna Gillis, CEO of Aqualitas, Nova Scotia’s third LP, says the province’s attitude is similar to the way she likes to introduce new cannabis consumers to the product: “Low and slow to start, and it will evolve.”
But Nova Scotia’s provincial frenemy is moving quickly. New Brunswick has planned a fund to support cannabis research and development, is getting into the recreational pot retail market with 20 “stand-alone” shops separate from liquor stores and, in 2016, invested $4 million in Zenabis’ weed growing facility, which received its license last year.
To Andrew Robinson, these initiates are “fantastic,” and leave him all the more “puzzled” by the Nova Scotia government’s hesitation to join the green rush. “I really don’t understand why they are so in the dark, so behind the times,” he says. “They are just so stubborn.”
It’s hard to know what the market for weed will look like on legalization day, whenever it arrives. (The most-repeated refrain out of Ottawa has changed from “by July” to “before October.”) But Robinson thinks Nova Scotia, with only nine retail stores planned, has vastly underestimated demand.“In the United States, after legalization there were lineups down the road—and they had stores on every block,” he says.
The provincial government hopes that online sales will make up for any lack of stores, while it waits for the smoke to clear before making further infrastructure plans.
Meanwhile, the small team of NSLC staff assigned to the cannabis file appears to be doing the best they can with what they have to get ready for legalization. In January, they reached out to growers in the province and across Canada, and have 35 producers—licensed or in processing—interested in selling pot in Nova Scotia.
“We are enjoying a very collaborative relationship with licensed producers,” says the NSLC’s Beverly Ware, “highlighted by open and transparent dialogue on both sides.”
With only three LPs, all of whom are still waiting for their retail license, there’s not going to be much—if any—local bud on NSLC shelves, though Bill Stanford of Breathing Green Solutions, the first producer in the province to get its production license, is confident his company will be ready. “We’ll beat the recreational date,” he says. “I’m not worried about that.”
Construction at Robinson’s Cannabis in Kentville in the fall of 2017 (left), and Breathing Green’s first rows of cannabis plants (right).