One of the first to sell legal cannabis in Canada, Thomas Clarke says he’s closing his shop

Thomas Clarke says he is opening his independent cannabis shop in Portugal Cove-St.  Phillips.  (Peter Cowan/CBC - photo credit)

Thomas Clarke says he is opening his independent cannabis shop in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips. (Peter Cowan/CBC – photo credit)

Peter Cowan/CBC

Peter Cowan/CBC

Thomas Clarke sold cannabis illegally for 25 years and was one of the first to legally sell it in Canada after the drug was regulated in October 2018.

But now he has to start his independent business in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s – among the first in Newfoundland and Labrador – forever.

“From the start, I really struggled to get funding. I started this whole business with $250,000 that I had saved and borrowed from family members, and I probably used up that money before 2019 was out,” Clarke said Monday.

Clarke opened its doors at midnight on October 17, 2018 to become the first to legally sell cannabis in Canada at a historic moment when Prohibition ended across the country.

Other retailers and suppliers, like Canopy Growth and its Tweed storefront, have also felt the sting of the fledgling and still-growing industry.

Clarke said he couldn’t open bank accounts to keep his business afloat and in 2020 there was a shift towards licensed retailers buying their products through the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation – the province’s alcohol and cannabis regulator .

He said he had to use cash up front and rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

“From around 2021 I started to have less inventory because I never had enough money to buy cannabis to satisfy every customer,” he said.

“From 2021 up until now I’ve generally had a very small menu and that comes across to the people of Portugal Cove-St. No benefit to Philip’s or anyone else who comes into my shop. As a result, I lost a lot of customers.”

Jeremy Eaton/CBC

Jeremy Eaton/CBC

Clarke also pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the location of competitors close to his location as other reasons he faced adverse losses and had to lay off all of his staff.

“I was making $1.5 million in sales a year. I only made half a million compared to last year,” he said.

“I’m at the point now where I’m out of money and have to close the doors.”

Keep the dream alive

In NLC’s report for the third quarter of 2023, Crown Corporation recorded $18.7 million in cannabis sales, up 31.9 percent from the third quarter of the previous year.

The NLC said a decision in September — following a three-year industry review — to approve cannabis vaporizers boosted the bottom line with third-quarter sales of $1.6 million. That was nine percent of total cannabis sales.

Cannabis NL, the cannabis division of the NLC, also welcomed two new licensed retailers in the third quarter: Atlantic Cannabis in Torbay and Oceanic Cannabis in St. John’s.

There are currently 41 licensed cannabis retailers in Newfoundland and Labrador, but Clarke says there may be more and his dream isn’t quite over yet.

“I’ve been working with Oceanic and it looks like they’ll be opening a store here in April. I’ll work for them here,” Clarke said.

“I’ll be able to still be in the industry, I’ll be able to have a much better menu, and I’ll be able to serve customers better in the future.”

HEAR | Hear the full interview with CBC Radio St. John’s morning show:

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