Lawson
Credit: Blain Lawson

To mark the recent legalization of recreational marijuana, we check in with some of the key players in the B.C. cannabis world. From pot growers to government officials to medical professionals, meet the people helping move the industry forward and keep British Columbians safe. Todays subject is Blain Lawson, general manager of the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch

“Startup” isn’t a word normally associated with government, but that’s how Blain Lawson describes the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch’s cannabis division. The BCLDB has assembled a group of some 175 people, including contractors, to oversee its new role as the province’s lone wholesale distributor of recreational cannabis to a mix of public and private retailers.

So far, Lawson says, the biggest challenge was the changeover of government last year, which put the BCLDB six months behind its peers in the other provinces. He took charge of cannabis that November: “I had seven months, because we were working toward a July 1 go-live, to get a multimillion-dollar business up and running.”

On October 17, only one legal outlet selling recreational pot, a government-run BC Cannabis Store in Kamloops, was slated to be open. By then, the BCLDB also planned to launch an e-commerce portal that serves businesses and consumers.

The agency will start with about 5,000 kilograms of dried cannabis, oils and capsules, provided by 25 of the 32 B.C. and other licensed producers it had signed deals with as of September. “Their big challenge has been on packaging, on product descriptions and on pricing to make sure that they’re not pricing themselves out of the market,” Lawson says of the LPs.

Subject to demand, he and his team have geared up to open 10 to 12 government stores within the first six or seven months of legalization. By mid-September, 115 hopefuls had paid the $7,500 application fee to seek a private retail licence.

With an eye on what consumers will pay for legal weed, the BCLDB’s wholesale markup is just 15 percent, versus 89 percent for wine. Retailers are free to charge a premium, but they can’t sell their product below wholesale.

“The key priority is protecting children and youth and ensuring we keep the criminal element out of cannabis,” Lawson says. “We’re looking to recoup our costs, cover our overhead, but this is not a big cash grab.”

Check out the November issue of BCBusiness for more profiles of B.C.s pot players