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Cannabis buds lay along a drying rack at the CannTrust Niagara Greenhouse Facility in Fenwick, Ont., on June 26, 2018.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

The sole government-mandated training program for cannabis retail workers in Ontario is under new ownership after the program’s previous owner declared bankruptcy last month, throwing a critical piece of the province’s regulated marijuana industry into question.

CannSell is an online course, similar to Smart Serve, that is mandated by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario for anyone working in a licensed cannabis dispensary. The program was developed by Lift & Co. in partnership with the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Lift & Co. filed for bankruptcy last month, and its stake in the CannSell program was sold by its creditors to the Canadian Cannabis Retailers Co. Ltd. (CCRC), which was formed in July for the purpose of buying CannSell. The deal was announced last Wednesday and both the AGCO and MADD have expressed their continued support of the program under its new owners.

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The acquisition puts the CCRC at the heart of Ontario’s regulated cannabis industry. Until a few months ago, however, the group behind the newly launched company was involved with Cannabis And Fine Edibles (CAFE) – a prominent illegal cannabis dispensary chain in Toronto.

The CCRC is now responsible for delivering the mandatory online training meant to educate legal dispensary workers in the responsible sale of cannabis.

The CCRC was incorporated in July, as an offshoot of the Canadian Cannabis Retailers Union (CCRU). The groups share the same two executive officers and two of the same three directors. The CCRU, in turn, was formed in 2019 with the stated purpose of improving training for cannabis retail workers.

Until June, when the CCRU ended its membership program, CAFE was the group’s only publicly disclosed member. Jonathan Carley, a director of both the CCRC and the CCRU, said in an interview that there were four other members whose names he could not disclose: three individuals and one company, all interested in acquiring cannabis retail licences.

Toronto police and city officials have tried to shut down CAFE’s dispensaries repeatedly, placing concrete blocks in front of the stores on several occasions. When asked why the CCRU allowed CAFE as a member, Mr. Carley said: “CAFE did some good things in terms of using child safety bags and things like that, they didn’t do everything that was evil.”

“We were looking for members, and we weren’t looking to be choosy,” he added.

In January, 2020, the CCRU launched a retail worker education program in partnership with a private career college based in Mississauga, Ont. In March, CAFE put out a press release saying that it had begun putting its dispensary workers through the program.

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Mr. Carley acknowledged that the CCRU’s early educational material had been developed in consultation with individuals involved in both the legal and illegal cannabis industry. This included conversations with Wesley Weber, a serial offender with convictions ranging from securities fraud to illegal cannabis production.

In an interview, Mr. Weber – who acknowledges his long-term involvement in the illicit cannabis industry – said that he helped start the CCRU, but was no longer directly involved with it.

“True story is I started it probably two-and-a-half years ago, I figure... I’m going to go and incorporate a not-for-profit and take all this intellectual property and teach people how to not only sell responsible cannabis, but how to not be an affront to the [cannabis] community,” he said.

"I just went and knocked on doors and got people to help the directors... [and] I helped them form the educational materials,” he said of his involvement with the group. Mr. Weber’s name does not appear on the CCRU’s incorporation documents.

Last year, a CBC News investigation alleged that Mr. Weber is one of the key people behind CAFE. Mr. Weber denied involvement with the dispensary chain: “I absolutely don’t own CAFE, but I do absolutely know a lot of the players,” he said.

Mr. Weber says he has no ongoing relationship with the CCRC or CCRU. He did say that he has founded an online platform for listing dispensaries and plans to turn it into a cannabis events company that would host conferences featuring CannSell branding and CCRC sponsorship.

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When asked whether Mr. Weber was involved in the CCRU, Mr. Carley said: “I’ve met Wes, he’s a passionate guy and certainly believes a lot of things with respect to the cannabis space. But right now there is no connection between Wes Weber and CannSell.”

AGCO spokesman Ray Kahnert said in a statement: “We were aware of CAFE’s involvement with the CCRU membership program that existed prior to June 2020, and its roster of members. The AGCO was advised that the membership program was terminated before its acquisition of CannSell so that it could focus exclusively on cannabis education and training."

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