Cannabis at three: reviewing regulation and legalization

·10 min read

Three years into legalization of non-medical cannabis the province has made some inroads shifting consumers from the illicit to the legal market.

But, in an effort to bridge the gap that still exists, it recently launched a public education campaign called Buy Legal, encouraging people to buy cannabis from government-sanctioned stores.

Citing the need to strengthen local economies and keep the profits out of the hands of illegal operators and organized crime, the province’s claims and a retrospective of legalization was analyzed by Brenton Raby, an experienced Nelson cannabis advocate who was worked in the industry.

The text also includes related excerpts from the provincial news release from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General on Buy Legal about the changes that have occurred over the last three years regarding cannabis regulation.

Buy Legal

“To help encourage more B.C. cannabis consumers to shift to the legal market from the illicit, government is launching Buy Legal, a public education ad campaign encouraging people to buy cannabis from provincially authorized cannabis retail stores that offer regulated and tested products.”

The Nelson Daily - What are your thoughts on that program?

Raby - I have read the outline, but have not been exposed to it in detail.

I am not surprised that the province would have an advertisement campaign hoping to attract customers.

They have linked the campaign to the government's claim that licit cannabis is safer, of better quality and the branding of all other sources as criminal. These claims are viewed with skepticism by many cannabis consumers.

The best way for the province to raise sales and revenue with market savvy consumers is through reasonable pricing, quality and proximity.

Provincial and local governments had assumptions about revenue, land use planning, and the need and cost for enforcement.

At the same time some in local government began imagining the programs that could be funded from getting their fair share. This was not good governance, but fair enough in a time of transition.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) notes the province has not been forthcoming with the distribution of its share of federal excise tax and retail sales tax revenue to local governments.

This might seem reasonable to the province as assumptions of cost and revenue are adding a more measured balance.

I hope that legal cannabis retail grows in B.C., especially to include higher quality organic and sunshine grown choices.

Province - The value of B.C.’s legal cannabis sector has more than quadrupled over the three years since Canada legalized non-medical cannabis.

The province now has the third-highest number of legal cannabis retail stores and second-highest number of federal production licence holders in the country.

B.C. has 375 licensed private retail stores, plus 30 public retail stores under the BC Cannabis Stores brand. A further 57 applications from throughout the province for private stores are approved in principle, as government strives to assess, improve and tighten processing timelines for retail licensees.

To help encourage more B.C. cannabis consumers to shift to the legal market from the illicit, government is launching Buy Legal, a public education ad campaign encouraging people to buy cannabis from provincially authorized cannabis retail stores that offer regulated and tested products. This campaign also emphasizes helping to strengthen local economies and keep profits out of the hands of illegal operators and organized crime. The ads contain a single link to online resources, including a map of legal sellers: https://justice.gov.bc.ca/lcrb/map

Local economies

“This (Buy Legal) campaign also emphasizes helping to strengthen local economies and keep profits out of the hands of illegal operators and organized crime.”

TND - Will this be the case?

Raby - I believe that the province can strengthen local economies best by relaxing regulations and permitting more people to participate in a diverse market that is not driven solely by retail sales.

The assumption of vast profits has been proven to be false. This reckoning is occurring in the illicit market as well as the legal market. It is an inevitable correction.

TND - How does this campaign strengthen local economies more than it did?

Raby - This campaign might not substantially strengthen local economies.

Provincial cannabis policy started with broad, arbitrary and strategic prohibitions. There is nowhere to go but improvement.

This campaign suggests those who will benefit will do so through rewards and licences. It is not how government should function: doling out incremental permission and perks to some but not others.

The province has made some substantive moves towards amending regulations and considering input from a broad range of stakeholders.

Permitting retail delivery, producer to consumer direct sales and streamlining the wholesale distribution process are positive steps made by the province.

Some municipalities continue to be overly restrictive and should also begin a review of their cannabis bylaws.

As Tracey Harvey notes in her 2021 thesis “where I live in the Kootenays cannabis is a transitioning economy. Valuing local culture and knowledge will empower successful economic transitioning.”*

My region's economy would benefit from cannabis regulations and opportunities that better considered local input and was less restricted from the above. Results could include entrepreneurial success, increasing legal retail sales and more legitimacy among consumers.

In order to get the best regulations the province must engage in collaborative governance. The government should consider input from citizens, including many who have been reluctant to participate.

Broad participation in regulation review might help the provincial government appreciate that the cannabis community is not only about money. There exists a culture that should be permitted to emerge and thrive.

* Weed Greed, and the Need for Reconciliation. Tracey Harvey, August 2021, University of Guelph; pp 7-8 for transitioning economies.

Province - B.C. is developing programs for direct delivery and farm-gate sales, which will launch in 2022. These programs will help smaller cannabis producers get products to market faster and build brand recognition. As of Oct. 8, 2021, B.C. had a total of 192 federal licence holders, including 55 micro-producers and 13 nurseries.

Also in 2020, in response to requests from cannabis retailers, B.C. removed the requirement that cannabis retail stores (CRSs) be enclosed by non-transparent walls.

In August 2020, B.C. moved to allow CRSs to sell their products online or by phone for in-store pickup.

Since July 15, 2021, B.C. has permitted all licensed cannabis retailers to deliver non-medical cannabis products directly to adult consumers at their homes and other locations, giving consumers additional ways to purchase from a legal source in their communities.

Organized crime

“… and keep profits out of the hands of illegal operators and organized crime.”

TND - Was there that much organized crime involved in the industry, and has it been curtailed with legalization?

Raby - After 9-11 B.C. cannabis was often brokered upwards to levels that involved people motivated by money and power. These people had a narrow and limited relationship with the plant and the culture of cannabis.

Identifying and healing from past links with crime and the traumas from enforcement can be intense and very personal. We are linked to a process of truth and reconciliation. The profits from illicit cannabis are now less than ever.

“South East District which included the Kootenays, held the lowest representation of organized crime across the entire province” in 2019, noted Harvey (p. 116).

The regulated market and the illicit market are contending with production surpluses and the correction from years of exaggerated pricing.

Province - Since B.C.’s Community Safety Unit (CSU) became operational and began education and enforcement efforts with unlicensed cannabis retailers, the unit has completed more than 70 inspections involving seizure of cannabis, with a total estimated retail value of approximately $20 million removed from the illicit market.

To date, 173 unlicensed retailers have either closed or stopped selling cannabis as a direct result of the CSU’s actions.

As of Oct. 4, 2021, the province has collected more than $1.2 million in penalties from illegal retailers who chose to continue to operate after initial educational visits from members of the CSU.

Quality and quantity

TND- Has legalization improved non-medical cannabis, as well as access to it?

Raby - Federal legalization has improved access to non-medical cannabis.

At the same time some existing provincial regulations have contributed to false scarcities, inflated prices and average quality for consumers.

Provincial regulatory roadblocks and prohibitions need to be re-examined and scaled back. This is what B.C. was promised during the early rush to over regulate.

The province delegated a lot of cannabis regulating to local governments. In some places in B.C. legal cannabis has been shut out by local government bylaws. Over regulation at the local level has resulted in broad prohibitions with proposals seeking variances and exceptions to bylaws or shut out completely.

This is not proper governance.

The City of Nelson arbitrarily zoned the entire commercial zone east from Josephine Street as a “cannabis unpermitted area.” The Nelson mayor at the time of passing its cannabis bylaws over three years ago assured the public that the bylaws would be reviewed. Pass hasty bylaws and correct later was the explained process. I was naive to believe this promise.

Three years in review

TND - How have you viewed the last three years as an “insider?” How could it have gone differently, and how should it go?

Raby - Legalization is the result of years of precedence in law and the tireless work of many activists.

I'm not sure I can claim to be an “insider.” I am a cannabis consumer and policy activist.

As an example I will use B.C. Cannabis Control Regulation Part 6, Section 37. This regulation prohibits the cannabis community from promoting or marketing anyplace as a place to go to consume cannabis or even go after consuming cannabis.

It is a prohibition on an entire community’s ability to express and celebrate itself. It was formulated from prejudice.

The province has indicated it will revisit the prohibitions under Section 37 and consider permitting consumption spaces. It has been a long road to get to this point.

Finally, I believe that an going issue is the equating of cannabis with alcohol. Cannabis offers people relief from many conditions, it can be fun and its associated harms are minimal.

This is made clear when considering the costs of alcohol in B.C., outlined in the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research 2021 Policy Brief* regarding alcohol consumption on municipal property:

“The rates of alcohol consumed in British Columbia are higher than the national average and have been steadily increasing since 2013[1].

“Alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 chronic disease and acute injury conditions[4] and was responsible for an estimated 19,172 hospitalizations and 2,380 deaths in BC in 2017[1]. “These harms impact the lives not only of the drinkers, but also their families, friends, workplaces and communities

“The economic costs of alcohol consumption in B.C. are also substantial. In 2017, alcohol use cost British Columbians an estimated $2.38 billion, surpassing tobacco as the costliest substance. There were an estimated $838 million in direct heath care costs related to alcohol, $989.7 million in related lost productivity costs, and $311.4 million in criminal justice costs[5], a portion of which directly impacts budgets at the municipal level. Alcohol-related costs are expected to rise with the increase in alcohol consumption from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

* https://www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cisur/assets/docs/policy-brief-municipal-unsupervised-alcohol- consumption.pdf, policy brief, July 13 2021

Timothy Schafer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nelson Daily

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