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Medical Marijuana

Legal Recreational Pot Is Nearer Than You Think

By Marc Davis

It's Canada's biggest guessing game.

At least that's the case for about eight million Canucks. Which is how many of us are expected to embrace a looming recreational market for cannabis.

Everybody wants to know when the federal government will finally make this election promise a reality.

Will it be next year? Or could it still be a couple of years away?

I want to know as much as anyone else. And fortunately, I don't have to resort to asking for guesstimates from eternally-optimistic pot aficionados or tipsy businessmen in the bar.

Instead, I'm fortunate enough to have access to the hotshots who run Canada's publicly-traded, industrial-scale growers.

These are the guys whose handful of companies have been entrusted by the federal government with the responsibility of owning a market that will be worth up to $10 billion a year.

It will be their job to mass-produce an estimated 600 tonnes of cannabis - every gram of which must meet stringent government standards for quality control and consumer safety.

Not only will they be mandated to produce the highest-quality cannabis in the world, but they'll also have to be ready to cater to millions of consumers at the stroke of Prime Minister Trudeau's pen.

What amazes me the most is that they will have to do this almost from a standing start. Currently, they can only legally service a fast-growing but still relatively tiny market of about 110,000 federal-government-approved medical marijuana patients.

Ironically, this nascent industrial-scale cannabis growing industry is struggling even to keep up with demand from Canada's medical patients -- at least for now.

The challenges of ramping-up production won't be an industry-wide problem for long. To this point, a couple of dozen publicly-traded companies raised around half a billion dollars in Canada's capital markets last year. Most of that money will be used to build growing facilities as big as one million square feet - and in a hurry.

That's so that these companies can hit the ground running when the government finally gives them the nod to usher-in a business opportunity of a lifetime -- the mainstreaming of pot for pleasure.

These CEOs therefore have a lot of pressure on their shoulders to get their timing just right. Otherwise, their companies could end up with a lot of surplus growing capacity that will hurt both their financials and share prices (at least in the short-term).

Nonetheless, each of them is betting big that their gambles are going to pay off. I quizzed several of the industry's more high-profile CEOs about their theories as to when a recreational market will kick-in.

So what do they have to say?

The biggest player in Canada's cannabis industry is Canopy Growth. With a market capitalization of about $1.6 billion dollars, this company is expected to own the lion's share of the looming recreational cannabis market.

Its CEO, Bruce Linton, tells me: "Trudeau should get the system implemented with enough time to work out any kinks and prove it works before he has to face the electorate again. Early 2018 leaves a full fiscal year, much later than that it could become a distraction during the next election."

More specifically, he means that the Liberal government will want to demonstrate to the electorate the positive impact of bringing an end to Canada's black market for pot. In particular, this will include the generation of significant tax revenues, he says.

It will also ease the burden on Canada's judicial system (especially considering that around 50,000 people are criminally charged with cannabis possession each year).

Denis Arsenault is the CEO of Canada's only industrial-scale grower of certified organic medical marijuana cannabis, Organigram. His company has a market capitalization of about $278 million.

He believes that the Liberal government is working on an expedited timeline to make good on a key election promise.

"I think legalization will happen sooner, rather than later. We're comfortable (at Organigram) that this will happen in 2018."

"The government doesn't want to do this during the 2019 election cycle."

And though federal and provincial governments may not want to admit it, they can't wait to get their hands on a juicy new stream of tax revenues, he adds.

What he's alluding to is that a precedent has already been set south of the border. That's where the recreational cannabis industry is taxed at a significant premium to other businesses in the states where it's legalized. And Canada is likely to follow suit with a similar "sin tax".

"Around $4-5 billion dollars in taxes can be generated by provincial and federal governments," he says.

What does Terry Booth think? He's the boss of Aurora Cannabis. At around $700 million, his company has the second biggest market capitalization of all of Canada's big-league, publicly-traded marijuana growers/sellers.

Aurora is just completing the largest-ever equity financing in Canada's cannabis industry - $75 million. Which means it's ready to build the first phase of a massive new facility. I'm talking about a building that will grow to be as large as 800,000 square feet of indoor cultivation capacity.

Boost predicts, "We expect the recreational adult-usage market will begin in the spring of 2018."

His reasoning is that Canada will need to withdraw from three international drug control treaties. And that involves notifying the Secretary-General of the United Nations a full year before Canada can opt-out. So Prime Minister Trudeau is likely to do this sooner, rather than later, he suggests. 

In which case, Canada's big producers are going to have to scramble to scale-up in time to satisfy a huge pent-up demand - whether this happens within the next 15 months or later.

Otherwise, we could end up with a huge irony: there might not be enough pot to go around.

So Canada's big growers -- who can't wait for 2018 to arrive -- would be wise to remember the old adage, 'Be careful of what you ask for. You just might get it.'

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