Ontario residents will have to wait a while longer before they can set foot in a legal marijuana retailer. Earlier today, provincial officials announced that Ontario would adopt a private retail system, abandoning the public model that was set to launch on October 17th.

Under the previous administration of Premier Kathleen Wynne, Ontario was set to establish provincially-owned stores operated by the same crown corporation that handles the monopoly on liquor sales in Ontario. But the incoming Ford government opposed those plans. And instead of changing the system down the line, they've decided to start from scratch.

That change of plans will cost the province a lot of time. But officials from the Ford government insist that they will be ready to handle sales on day one - albeit not in stores.

"We are here to say that Ontario will be ready," Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said during a press conference. "On October 17th, Ontario will be ready."

Online sales only

But they won't be ready with physical stores. Instead, cannabis consumers will have to order marijuana online through a website operated by the Ontario Cannabis Store, which was originally supposed to be the province's retailer. Despite that abrupt change, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli insisted that the launch on October 17th will be smooth.

“We have every confidence in the Ontario Cannabis Store to safely sell cannabis online with safe home delivery across the province, including a robust clarification system,” he said. "Over the longer term, Ontario will move toward enabling private retail cannabis. The government of Ontario will not be in the business of running public cannabis stores."

That longer term will stretch into next spring - or later. Private retailers "will be ready on April 1, 2019, if [the new legislation] is passed quickly," according to Minister Fedeli.

But before it can be passed, the province plans to consult stakeholders across the province to revamp Ontario's regulations. That will involve developing a licensing system for private retailers, determining where pot shops can operate in a municipality, setting prices and taxes for cannabis and crafting other rules and regs that will have to be hammered out into a bill and passed all in less than 7 months.

Jurisdictions can ban retailers

Whether or not you'll be able to buy cannabis in any given jurisdiction is up to the individual city or town because the Ford government is giving every municipality a one-time chance to opt-out of legalization all together. That means cannabis sales could be legal in one city while the next one over still prohibits marijuana retailers within its boundaries.

Combating the black market

Minister Fedeli defended the decision to delay the launch of the retail market by noting that most frequent cannabis consumers have voiced strong support for a private system. So the Ford government thinks they can combat the black market best by implementing the system that consumers want. Of course, getting them what they want when they want it is also crucial. So the issue of convenience could keep the black market in business for some time.

But the Ontario government plans to cut illicit cannabis sales out of the picture by prosecuting illegal pot shops. 

"The cannabis dispensaries and storefronts that are open today are illegal, and they will remain illegal after October 17," Minister Fedeli warned. "On October 17, the only legal and safe place to buy cannabis will be through the Ontario Cannabis Store website. This will be followed by private retail stores."

And when those open, the "the Ontario Cannabis Store will continue to serve as the wholesaler to private businesses," Fedeli added, saying that they will "introduce seal" to help Ontarians idenfity legal from illegal cannabis. "Consumers can look to this seal to tell them that they are buying from a legal channel....To those engaged in the underground today, our message is simple: stop."

Many questions remain unanswered

During the question period, the officials dodged several questions about how long the consultation process will take, when municipalities will have to decide whether to opt in or out, and even how the government intends to establish licenses, set prices and figure out where stores will operate, put all of that into a bill and pass it all within 8 months.

Instead, they asserted that they would be taking this time to consult with businesses, municipalities and Indigenous communities on how to create the best possible roll-out.

Addressing the press, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney affirmed that the province’s primary focus would be on protecting the province’s youth, stating that “no compromise or expense” would be spared to that end.