A budding industry: How spin-off cannabis businesses are rolling out in Ontario

These entrepreneurs see business opportunities beyond the mere growing and retailing of pot products. But can the province really become a destination for cannabis-related tourism?
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on April 18, 2019
The marijuana tourism industry has been hamstrung by restrictions on where you can purchase and consume the product. (iStock.com/OpenRangeStock)

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Gordon Weiske, entertainment director of Rolling Greens golf course, thinks the business’s atmosphere is best expressed via wordplay. “‘Come roll with us,’” he says. “That’s our motto.” It captures the essence of the yet-to-open Smiths Falls course — irreverent, inviting, and, of course, stoner-friendly. “We’re the first group to really brand a golf course in this way,” Weiske says.

Rolling Greens — called Lombard Glen under previous ownership — is a place where patrons will be invited to toke up while they tee off. (Full disclosure: the author’s girlfriend’s aunt and uncle work at the golf course.) The owners hope to “soft launch” on April 20; they’ll open full-time in the summer.

The golf course is just one example of a cannabis spin-off business, a venture that’s not based on growing or retail. TVO.org looks at a few pot-related enterprises that are creating a buzz in eastern Ontario — and examines the future of cannabis tourism in the province.

Fore-20

Weiske and his partners saw potential in Smiths Falls, the former manufacturing town that’s now known as “the pot capital of Canada.” Since 2014, cannabis giant Canopy Growth has been growing, packaging, and shipping cannabis from the factory there that once produced Hershey chocolate. Today, the company employs more than 1,300 people. It’s not affiliated with Rolling Greens, but it put the town on the marijuana map, Weiske explains.

“What Canopy Growth has done for Smiths Falls is amazing,” he says. “But we really wanted to focus on cannabis entertainment and tourism. We want to drive tourists to Smiths Falls.”

The golf course will be “BYOB,” explains Weiske: “bring your own bud.” He plans to give each hole a cannabis-related theme and hopes to set up sponsorship deals with brands like Visine and Doritos. It’s all part of an attempt to change golf’s image, he says — to make the stodgy sport more approachable. Weiske hopes to add mini-golf, frisbee golf, movies, and local music to the site’s entertainment menu.

“Golf courses have sort of plateaued,” he says. “That has to change. It has to appeal to a wider demographic.”

Limestoned City

In Kingston, one approach to cannabis tourism involves selling consumers on a classic combination: marijuana and rock ’n’ roll. Alberta-based retailer Spiritleaf has taken over the Smith Robinson building, downtown at the corner of Princess and Ontario streets. The shop, which opened April 1, contains a “store within a store” that celebrates Kingston’s favourite sons, the Tragically Hip.

On display are strains of cannabis with names inspired by the band’s songs: Meridian, 50, Grace, and Eldo, to name a few. They’re in a glass case under a painting of the Hip’s late front-man, Gord Downie. The store also features “listening stations” equipped with headphones — a Spiritleaf representative tells TVO.org that they’ll form part of an “experiential hub” that pays tribute to the Hip.

To build out the shop, Spiritleaf partnered with Up Cannabis, an Oakville-based company owned by Newstrike, which counts Hip members as stakeholders.

“You can ignore it if you want, but there’s a natural fit between cannabis and music and creativity,” says Newstrike CEO Jay Wilgar. “The Tragically Hip are one of the most iconic Canadian bands. This was a logical fit for us.”

And, for the most part, it’s Canadian consumers that Wilgar says his company is trying to reach — at least for now. He adds that other countries are watching Canada’s legal-cannabis experiment with interest. “Internationally, people are fascinated by what we’re doing in Canada,” he says. “We’re taking cannabis out of the shadows and allowing people to buy it in these beautiful stores.”

​​​​​​​A Place to Grow

In 2016, cannabis brought 6.5 million tourists to Colorado. If Ontario wants to become a cannabis destination, then the federal government will have to loosen regulations on marketing, according to lawyer and industry expert Rick Moscone.

“The rules in the Cannabis Act were pretty much drawn word for word from the marketing provisions in the Tobacco Act,” says Moscone, who co-chairs the Canadian Marketing Association’s working group on cannabis. “The restrictions are pretty heavy.”

That’s why you don’t see television advertisements for cannabis. The marijuana tourism industry is also hamstrung by restrictions on where you can purchase and consume the product.

Moscone doesn’t expect many international visitors to come to Ontario strictly for the cannabis. Canada is not the first country to legalize recreational cannabis, so the “novelty” of it has worn off, he says. If tourism grows, Moscone adds, it will be because Canadian growers have proven that their product is the best in the world.

“If people are making a trip around wine, they go to an area that’s known for high-quality wine: Napa Valley, or France, or Italy,” he says. “When cannabis is something that’s not just a product, but something to be enjoyed and savoured, that’s where we could see Canada getting a reputation as a cannabis destination.”

Weiske is confident that that will happen. He notes that the Hershey chocolate factory used to bring thousands of tourists to Smiths Falls. Why couldn’t cannabis do the same?

“We’re positioning ourselves internationally. If someone arrives in Canada in Toronto or Montreal, we’re going to offer tourism packages to get them here via plane or train,” he says. But while Weiske says he’s happy to accommodate tourists as much as possible, he adds a word of warning: “There will be no weed killer allowed at Rolling Greens.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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