WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation has no-comment policy on cannabis industry

One of Windsor-Essex's main economic development groups says it has a no-comment policy on the cannabis sector — an industry listed as one of the top economic priorities last year by Windsor-Essex businesses.

The policy from the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation was discovered by CBC News earlier this week while working on a story about a cannabis-based small business in Amherstburg.

CBC News reached out to a number of business leaders, city councillors and mayors, but few got back to us. Leamington Mayor Hilda McDonald was approached by one reporter for comment, but declined to comment out of "fear of making enemies with WEEDC."

Windsor Ward 9 Coun. Kieran McKenzie would speak with CBC News, however. He said it's unfortunate that WEEDC would have a policy "where they're not going to participate in the industry."

"With that said, I think there will come a day where all of our community partners will be fully involved in promoting investment in that sector, as well as understanding the opportunities that are there with respect to job creation and just general economic growth for the region," said McKenzie.

Thanks for reaching out to the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corp.  I wanted to advise you that we do not make comments on the cannabis industry. - WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, in an email to CBC News on Nov. 6.

"It's something that we need to recognize. And not only recognize, but we need to bring all of the partners to the table, in order to fully leverage those opportunities that are in front of us."

It's unclear when WEEDC's policy was put in place. This week, CBC News alerted WEEDC that a cannabis-related story was featured on its website. CBC News also informed WEEDC that one of the organization's representatives had been quoted in a July story about cannabis greenhouse technologies.

In a statement, WEEDC responded by saying, "We will be removing the story from our website immediately. As for previous stories, they are in the past; our current no-comment policy stands."

Sanjay Maru/CBC

The email exchange between CBC News and WEEDC ended when a CBC reporter asked if it "was possible to know when that no-comment policy came into effect."

No response was given.

"In my view, that's a decision and those policies are determined at their board of directors level. They have their reasons. I haven't had the opportunity to sit in on those meetings to understand what exactly is the rationale behind this particular policy," said Mackenzie.

But Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos disagreed. In June, Santos was part of a group of local delegates who attended an "agri-tech" conference in the Netherlands — a group which also included WEEDC's director of business attraction.

He said not only was WEEDC's no-comment policy not a concern for Santos, he added that's it not "uncommon" considering the cannabis sector is an emerging one.

"We know it's happening. We know it's in our community. It's being driven by a market. It's not being driven by incentives or initiatives by any one region," said Santos.

"It's an emerging sector. So there isn't a lot of data and statistics that really provides insight into what that organization is focused on. Their board of directors has identified obviously a strategy to encompass the entire region. And cannabis on its own is not something that is significant enough to market concerns. We're learning."

In his experience, Santos said, WEEDC has been more than responsive and accommodating to all of his concerns and requests for information.

Sanjay Maru/CBC

"I don't know if [WEEDC is] not responding to calls or inquiries from individuals, but certainly when we're asking questions about automations and opportunities from abroad, they do provide the stakeholders support for information, whether it's on cannabis or whether it's automotive or on sectors that we know are existing," said Santos, pointing to "challenges and changes" in cannabis legislation and rules.

"So for them to blanket one area, it's not a concern for me from my perspective. We know the resources available if there's challenges that we see with these companies or interests."

CBC News also reached out to Lakeshore Mayor Tom Bain, who sits on the board for WEEDC.

He wouldn't comment on whether or not he agrees with the organization's no-comment policy on the cannabis sector, but speculated it could simply be the result of WEEDC adjusting to an emerging sector.

'Still a very large stigma'

Cannabis consultant Mary Durocher agreed that the sector comes with a "grey area."

She pointed to false notions that cannabidiol (CBD) is a legal product which can be sold anywhere, as well as confusion around CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as examples that contribute to confusion about the cannabis sector. 

Dale Molnar/CBC

"They've taken a step back and are looking to inform themselves and do more fact-checking on some of their businesses and articles that are released," said Durocher, adding WEEDC is, perhaps, turning to a no-comment policy as an "excuse" for not having done the appropriate research on the cannabis sector.

"That is unfortunate. There could be a lot of political motives behind the scenes as well. As much as we don't want to admit it, there is still a very large stigma surrounding cannabis in general and the cannabis industry in Canada," said Durocher.

"As you know, many corporate and commercial banks do not touch it. So that could be a very large determining factor for them in general to maybe stay on the outskirts of the cannabis industry and and not get involved yet."