We need a made-in-B.C. solution to cannabis legalization that pays attention to public health and safety, but also considers economic development in B.C.’s mature cannabis industry.
Speaking to the recent meeting of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said it was “important to get it [cannabis legalization] right.”
“We are unique in B.C.,” the minister said, adding that we have a “long, established history.”
So, how do we get it right? What are the challenges and solutions?
For a start, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, B.C. has a mature and diverse cannabis economy, and with the poor performance of fishing, forestry, mining and natural gas, many regions of the province depend on cannabis cultivation for economic stability.
The solution? We have to find ways to make the underground cannabis economy overground, regulated, taxed and legal. This is not a new idea: Colorado and Oregon, the most successful regulated jurisdictions in the U.S., have moved existing retailers and producers into their legal frameworks. California is in the process of a similar move, with a January 2018 legalization date.
Rather than continue prohibition and prosecution, these states chose to bring them into the light, regulate them and tax them.
This has multiple benefits: The transition of existing businesses undermines the black market, the costs to create a new system are greatly reduced, an expedient transition to regulated sales and tax revenue is created, and regional economies are stabilized, not undermined.
Another key takeaway from these jurisdictions, and all other legal jurisdictions in the U.S., is not putting cannabis with alcohol sales.
“The fact is, no other jurisdiction co-locates cannabis with alcohol,” said Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s public health officer, in a comment to the media on Sept. 29.
Ontario has already announced its proposed model and one notable part was that it kept cannabis separate from liquor stores. This reflects the view of the federal government’s task force ably led by Ann McClellan, a former deputy prime minister of Canada, which urged we separate cannabis retail from liquor retail.
Co-location with alcohol is not a wise strategy for public health and safety, and presents a public-health problem, as cannabis is a known harm-reduction tool for alcoholics. Requiring them to enter a liquor store to purchase cannabis is detrimental to their recovery.
As well, putting cannabis in liquor stores a sends a mixed message to youth: Why sell two substances together when mixing is not recommended?
Some have talked about putting cannabis in pharmacies, but according to a recent study on harm reduction, selling cannabis in pharmacies is worse than selling in liquor stores, as 66 per cent of people in the study reported using cannabis as harm reduction for pharmaceuticals, compared with 40 per cent as an alcoholic substitute.
It seems clear that the most logical place to put recreational cannabis sales is within the existing medical cannabis dispensaries.
Another part of Ontario’s proposal did meet criticism from a wide rage of experts in the field: A liquor-style government monopoly that is propped up by continued prohibition and law enforcement against the existing industry is said to be a recipe for the continuation of the black market. Ontario asked for $276 million to enforce legalization. Who expected “legalization” to cost more and involve more legal and police action than prohibition?
As for a good, workable B.C. model that, with a bit of fine tuning, would meet all these concerns, we already have one.
We’ve seen cannabis stores that dealt with medical marijuana providing safe and affordable access for patients.
The Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries believes the way to getting rid of the black market is to regulate and transition our existing dispensaries.
Victoria, Vancouver, Nelson and other progressive cities have shown the way, and our provincial government acknowledges this as a feasible route to regulation. However, in all this, municipalities must be heard.
Farnworth, himself a former municipal councillor, seemed open to the involvement of the municipalities, probably using a set of general provincial regulations and empowering municipalities to adapt them to local circumstances.
Interestingly, the “king-making” Green Party has said it doesn’t want the cannabis industry taken over by multinational or big companies and favour a “craft model,” fits B.C.’s existing dispensary retail model. We could add it also means quality product and quality service. To cite Farnworth again: We do have an established history unique to B.C., so let’s learn from it.
Jeremy Jacob is the president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries. Ehren Richardson is the vice-president.