Travelers visiting Prince George Airport in British Columbia this summer could score some weed for their trip at a licensed dispensary, a sign that cannabis continues to be normalized in Canada since legalization in 2018.
The Prince George City Council recently gave preliminary approval for Copilot, a cannabis dispensary planned by American business partners Owen Ritz and Reed Horton with the support of airport regulators. The venture was first announced in January by the Prince George Airport Authority (PGAA), which said that Copilot is “pioneering cannabis for travel.”
“The company approached us in early 2020 with a proposal to open the first cannabis dispensary in an airport terminal worldwide, to our knowledge,” PGAA CEO Gordon Duke told the Prince George Citizen. “We feel strongly that having Copilot here at YXS will enhance our services our other business partners provide to our passengers and the people of our region,” he added, using the airport code for the Prince George travel hub.
Reaching Consumers Where They Are
Cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018, and each province has since established its own regulations for recreational cannabis retail sales. Ontario had more than 1,100 licensed dispensaries at the end of 2021, jumping from only 183 in a year. Joanne McNeish, a Ryerson University professor specializing in marketing, said that the competition is beginning to concern some dispensary owners.
“The whole industry completely misunderstood what would happen because they thought the only barrier is legalization and once we’re legal, people will just buy,” said McNeish, who added that locating businesses in new locations such as airports and shopping malls could make it easier to reach customers.
“For a user, it could make it that much more convenient,” said McNeish.
As the retail environment for recreational cannabis continues to become more crowded, companies like Copilot are looking for novel location to reach consumers.
“Our goal from day one has been to create a differentiated retail experience that stands out from any store you might see downtown,” Ritz told the Canadian Press last week.
Canadian law allows air travelers to carry up to 30 grams of pot or the equivalent in other cannabis products on domestic flights. To accommodate travelers, many airports have already established areas where consumption of cannabis is permitted.
“One in four Canadians have already traveled with cannabis,” Ritz noted.
In a presentation to the Prince George City Council, Ritz and Howard explained that Copilot staff will check customers’ boarding passes to ensure that they are booked on a domestic flight. The business will not sell cannabis to international travelers or those employed by the airport or airlines. The partners said that they believe the airport in central British Columbia is the ideal location to launch Copilot.
“We felt Prince George was the best place to start because of the size of the airport and the community culture,” Horton said. “We felt the airport was large enough to have enough passenger traffic and enough flights to test out the different aspects of the business model but small enough where we would develop a community feel, and it wouldn’t necessarily feel like our retail store was in a sea of other stores or that it was an overwhelming experience for other passengers given that is a very new concept.”
“If all goes as planned, we are opening the first cannabis retail store in an airport right here in Prince George this summer,” said Ritz.
Airlines Opposed to Planned Airport Dispensary
Locating cannabis dispensaries in airports, however, is facing opposition from the air travel industry, including Canada’s two largest airlines. Air Canada director of local and provincial government relations Serge Corbeil said at a public hearing in February that the measures taken to ensure customers are not traveling internationally may not be effective in cases where passengers have more than one boarding pass.
“This could be highly problematic,” Corbeil said. “(And) while rare, there are instances where a flight may be domestic, but be diverted into the United States.”
Additionally, the airline industry is concerned that allowing cannabis sales and consumption sites at airports may lead to more intoxicated passengers in the skies. WestJet director of government and regulatory affairs Jared Mikoch-Gerke noted in a written statement that the International Air Transport Association recently reported a 55% increase in unruly behavior in the span of one year.
“WestJet, similarly, has also seen a significant increase in unruly behavior of passengers, and in many cases, the underlying cause is found to be intoxication,” Mikoch-Gerke wrote. “Unruly behavior onboard an aircraft is a fundamental safety issue, where the most severe cases see passengers physically assaulting crew members or other passengers, and, in some cases, attempting to open cabin doors or emergency exit windows and resulting in the diversion of aircraft. An aircraft cabin is not an appropriate place to be intoxicated.”
But Prince George City Councilor Cori Ramsey says that the fact that airports already have cannabis consumption areas and businesses that sell and serve alcohol makes dispensaries located at airports appropriate.
“To me, the precedent has already been set that this is an acceptable land use for an airport,” Ramsay said. “I know it’s strange going first. (But) looking 10, 15 years down the line, I can see cannabis stores available in most airports in Canada.”