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Finance Minister Says Cannabis NB ‘Has Got To Make Some Money’

SAINT JOHN – Finance Minister Ernie Steeves admits the province is not doing a great job at selling cannabis products.

Steeves says the current government-owned model is “tough” for business.

“It’s a tricky business. Health Canada is not in love with this business at all. As a matter of fact, Health Canada really does not want this business to succeed I am convinced, because they really put a whole lot of barriers in our way,” he said during a Saint John Chamber Luncheon.

He says cannabis legalization has come with a steep learning curve that has been hard to keep up with.

“Everybody has their own feelings on the cannabis thing. If you’re from social development, you’re worried about people who have addiction problems and if you’re from public safety you’re worried about getting it off the streets,” he said.

“I look at it through the lens of finance, which is we’ve got to make some money.”

In December, Cannabis NB finally turned their first profit of $13,000 which Steeves largely contributes to the introduction of edibles.

“It’s better than losing, and we had been losing most recently close to $400,000 to half a million a month,” he said.

Steeves says the current model just isn’t working, which is why they’ve put the call out for experienced companies to take the helm.

A recent request for proposals has come back with eight bids from companies from across the country, including two New Brunswick organizations.

Steeves explains all eight businesses have to go through what’s called a fairness monitor, meaning he doesn’t know many details behind each of the companies.

He says there are a variety of options available, such as licensing private retailers or a co-existence of public and private, but the model that makes the most sense is having “one entity” manage legal cannabis sales.

“We’ve got to make changes along the way. whether it means closing down some of the stores that are non-productive. There are about seven of them that I look at that I think ‘okay, maybe we could’ve closed those,” he said.

A single operator could be chosen by this spring with the new private model being rolled out by later this year.

Steeves says if they don’t get a compelling deal, they’ll have no choice but to keep Cannabis NB and fix it themselves.

“We have to stay in the business”

In response to an online petition asking the government to explore a private licensing model, Steeves says he wasn’t aware of the petition until our newsroom showed it to him.

He says the model is a familiar one, but whether the government can and will explore it will have to wait until the RFP process is complete.

“Right now it is kind of out of our hands. Until we’re done with the RPF process, nothing like this will be addressed,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

Saint John East MLA Glen Savoie also was not aware of the petition

“The RFP process is in place right now. We don’t know…who the successful candidate is going to be, what all the details around the modeling is going to look like. Is there a space for something like this? I guess it would be too early to say no but too early to say yes either,” he said.

Danielle McCreadie is a reporter with CHSJ/Country 94, a Huddle content partner.