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Alberta’s budding cannabis market

It’s been an exciting summer for cannabis in Alberta. Part of that stems from their private retail model. For cannabis, this means consumers get to decide when the market is saturated enough.

However, if you think that obtaining a cannabis licence in Alberta is any easier than elsewhere in Canada, think again. It’s as rigorous and thorough as it is anywhere and municipal permissions and licences must be granted before a retailer can even think about setting up shop.

All that said, this summer has seen a major boom in Alberta’s cannabis market. In the early days of June, the number of licensed cannabis retailers sat at around 120. As fall approaches, that number has more than doubled to 287.

“The moratorium we put in place just one month after legalization was finally lifted in May,” explains Heather Holmen, spokesperson for Alberta Gaming, Liquor & Cannabis (AGLC). “We were able to secure additional contracts with licensed growers to ensure that retailers would have adequate supply. As we continued to secure more licensed producers, we determined it was a good time to lift the moratorium and let the market expand.”

Looking back at the early days of legalization, the whole country struggled to keep up with the demand for cannabis.

“I often use the phrase ‘a plant doesn’t grow over night’, and that’s really what happened here,” Holmen says. “The time frame in which cannabis legalization went from an idea to our actual reality was so short. I can’t think of any other legalization of that caliber; essentially coming out of prohibition and going through legislation so quickly.”

Upon legalization on October 17, 2018, AGLC issued around 100 cannabis retail licences before they had to stop. The moratorium they imposed was to protect existing retailers and ensure those retailers had adequate cannabis supply.

“When the moratorium was lifted, there was a queue of 115 applications that had been approved and were awaiting a licence,” Holmen says. “But of course, we can’t just issue all those licences in one day; we had to be strategic.”

AGLC was also determined to meet the needs of eligible retailers. When the moratorium lifted, they committed to issue five licences per week for two weeks. They then increased that goal to 10 per week and then to 25.

“That would explain the great increase in licences this summer,” Holmen confirms.

More licences mean more storefronts across Alberta. Calgary takes the top spot with 63 cannabis retail locations. Edmonton has 45 and Lethbridge has 12.

Retail chains have a strong presence in the market. While one company is prohibited from owning more than 15% of all stores in the province, chains are working towards getting to their maximum number. To date, Spiritleaf has approximately 27 stores in Alberta, NewLeaf Cannabis has 25, Canna Cabana and Fire & Flower Cannabis Co. each have 20 stores, and Plantlife is operating with 12. Other chains are also operating in the province with close to 10 stores each.

“We don’t expect to see a physical storefront in every single community across the province,” Holmen says. “But you could probably find one nearby or neighbouring.”

The growth of the cannabis market in Alberta is certainly on the fast track. To quote the movie Mean Girls, when it comes to the amount of cannabis licences that will be issued in Alberta, “the limit does not exist.” Only time and consumer demand will determine that.