TORONTO – Ontario has called in its top business guru to head the agency that will handle the complicated task of selling and distributing recreational marijuana once pot is legalized this summer.
Former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, who has served as Premier Kathleen Wynne’s business adviser since 2015, was nominated Thursday by Finance Minister Charles Sousa to chair the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s board of directors.
Clark, who also is working on the province’s bid to land the new Amazon headquarters, will oversee the agency as it creates a subsidiary that will run stand-alone stores to sell legal weed.
Clark described himself as a “conservative on the cannabis file” and said safety is top of mind for him.
“I think we have to be quite careful,” he said. “I think it’s good to get the drug out of the hands of drug dealers. I think having people buy what is a drug, that hasn’t been tested … and buy it from bad guys, is not a good thing. We’re not here to promote marijuana. We’re here to make sure that we cut the drug dealers out of marijuana trade.”
The LCBO subsidiary must put in place good quality control measures that provide consumers with a safe product, he said.
“We have to make sure that we have a system, as we do with the LCBO, that we’re not selling to people that shouldn’t be buying this,” he said.
Clark noted that in his 2015 review of Ontario’s assets he recommended maintaining public ownership of the LCBO and expanding access to wine and beer, two ideas the Liberal government has accepted.
“I like the LCBO but it doesn’t mean there isn’t more that it can do,” he said. “I’m a retailer at heart. It will be fun to try to say, OK, how can we serve the consumer better?”
The process is likely to be fraught with challenges from municipal pushback to concerns about lack of supply, but Sousa said Clark’s experience makes him the ideal person for the job.
“He’s a retailer by his nature,” Sousa said. “But he’s also a policy mind. He’s successful. He has the ability to deal very effectively with leaders around the world and we’ve engaged him to do just that on our behalf.”
Clark’s appointment as LCBO chairman was discussed by Ontario’s cabinet Thursday morning and will now be finalized after a review by a committee at Queen’s Park.
The province announced last fall that it plans to create a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario that will run the legal weed stores. The agency itself will oversee the planning process to establish its retail locations.
The province plans to set up approximately 150 standalone cannabis stores by 2020 with the first wave of 40 stores opening this summer.
Clark has handled a number of difficult files for Ontario’s Liberal government in recent years, leading a controversial government asset review in 2014 which recommended the partial selloff of Hydro One. In 2015, Clark advised the province on the restructuring of U.S. Steel Canada in Hamilton. In 2016, he conducted a review of the province’s digital health records system.
For his work, Clark has taken a salary of one dollar per year, something that Sousa joked won’t change.
“As you know he’s been advising and providing some support for the government on a number files and he has been getting his dollar,” Sousa said. “I don’t intend to give him a raise.”
Ontario NDP finance critic John Vanthof panned Clark’s hiring saying it sends the signal that the LCBO could be privatized. He urged the premier to cancel Clark’s nomination to the board.
“By appointing Clark to the top post at the LCBO, Wynne is sending strong signals that she won’t stop with the selloff of Hydro One,” Vanthof said in a statement. “Ontarians overwhelmingly opposed that short-sighted move, but Wynne went ahead with her plan anyway, and Ontario families are literally paying the price.”
Ontario Public Service Employees Union President Warren (Smokey) Thomas also called on Wynne to rescind Clark’s appointment.
“Ed Clark has always put profits before people,” Thomas said in a statement. “Giving him the keys to the LCBO will be a huge boon for Bay Street, but it’s going to cause real harm on Main Street.”
Sousa denied Clark’s hiring signals a move to privatize the Crown corporation. Clark himself recommended hanging onto the LCBO in his review of government assets, he said.
“There is no intent on selling LCBO,” he said. “It’s a very efficient, very productive, well-run organization. It’s valuation is tremendous.”
Meanwhile, the provincial government announced Thursday it was accepting public comment on a number of possible further regulations of legal cannabis.
The proposals, which would add further detail to provincial pot laws passed in the fall, were posted on a government website. The proposed rules include clarifying where cannabis can be used with exemptions for hotel rooms and vehicles like boats which are used as primary residences. The regulations would also allow pot to be consumed in private residences which are also workplaces.
The regulatory changes also appear to open the door to permitting licensed and regulated cannabis consumption lounges and venues.