This post applies to the recent December 5, 2017 press release by the British Columbia government regarding how they plan on implementing marijuana regulations in the province.
Saving you from reading the actual release, they plan on having a sole wholesaler (the BC Liquor Distribution branch) and a private/public retail distribution mechanism.
This is very similar to how liquor in other major provinces are distributed – the government gets to keep the lion’s share of the profit on the wholesale side.
In British Columbia, retailers can purchase product from the government monopoly wholesaler at a 16% profit margin for licensed retail stores. These stores will have to then sell enough volume in order to pay for the usual business expenses (leasing a physical location, maintaining inventory, staffing, etc.).
Using the liquor analogy, profits from the retail end of things will be minimal. The best example is Liquor Stores NA (TSX: LIQ) which, despite booking 25% gross margins on their product, when things are good, earn a 3% operating profit margin (not before financing costs, but this is after depreciation expenses).
People following this company will shout out that they are undergoing a significant restructuring, but the central theme still sticks – it is a very low margin industry when your only supplier is government-controlled and has every incentive to maximizing its own profit and not yours.
This is a miserable business climate to be in.
Another, much smaller, example is Rocky Mountain Liquor (TSX: RUM). They operate retail entirely out of Alberta. Cherry-picking their best results in the last year, they are earning a 2% operating profit margin (and this is BEFORE financing and depreciation expenses).
Is marijuana going to be any different than liquor?
I would float the claim that retail marijuana profitability will be even worse than liquor because people can easily grow their own product sufficient for their own consumption. Federal legislation actively encourages people to grow their own marijuana plants at home (4 plants that you can now grow larger than the original 100cm proposed in the initial draft of Bill C-45).
This leaves the question of wholesale – there will need to be suppliers of this. I will also make the claim this will be a race to the bottom, with the exception that the “grow it at home” market will erode profits to the point that wholesale will nowhere near justify the 3.6 billion market capitalization seen from Canopy Growth (TSX: WEED) today – even assuming they captured the entire Canadian marijuana market.
The hype is marijuana producers will be able to achieve tobacco company margins – Rothmans was the last publicly traded Canadian tobacco company and they achieved roughly 50% operating margins (before financing and depreciation). It won’t be happening this way again – this margin will be siphoned by the government from the very beginning.