It’s been 15 months since the sale of cannabis was legalized in Canada, but challenges remain.
The slow rollout in B.C. is squandering B.C.’s built-in competitive advantage, says former Surrey councillor Barinder Rasode. She now heads Grow Tech Labs and founded the National Institute of Cannabis Health and Education.
The pre-legalization industry contributed $7.1 billion to the economy, Rasode says. People in the pre-legalization industry have plenty of knowledge and skills. Most have been shut out from participating in the legal industry. The government’s been slow in addressing the lack of retail outlets. The net effect is some of the business operates outside the legal framework, and this drastically reduces revenues to the three levels of government.
One reason for the retail drought in some places is that local municipalities have the power to decide if cannabis retailers are allowed in their communities. Some cities have said “no” and some have said “yes.” Many remain somewhere in the middle, studying zoning and other issues. The lack of outlets means cannabis consumers, used to a source of supply, continue to get product from their dealers and pay no taxes of any kind.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the eastern part of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. There are no retail outlets from New Westminster to Abbotsford, the fastest-growing area of the province. There are three outlets in Chilliwack and one more in Maple Ridge.
The first government-operated store opened in Kamloops on the day cannabis became legal. Others have since opened, but none are in the Lower Mainland.
Another challenge has been distribution. Licensed producers sell product to the Liquor Distribution Branch, which then sells to stores. Unlike liquor, cannabis has a short shelf life. This method of distribution also adds considerable costs.
Many large companies entered the industry before legalization and raised billions through share sales. Some have had a lot of challenges, and stock prices have tanked. This has led to credit issues. Some have had to destroy a lot of product, while others have encountered cultivation problems and neighbourhood opposition to large greenhouses which emit a strong odour.
Rasode says small growers would be able to bypass many of these problems. They are familiar with cultivating small crops. They are experts in raising specific types of cannabis. They know how to get fresh product to market.
Her organization is setting up a Craft Farmers co-op which would allow small growers to use this expertise. The co-op suggests using cannabis parks where a number of small growers could produce their crops on one parcel of land. These would not be large-scale operations.
More than 150 growers are interested in this concept. The model calls for security and minimal impact on the neighbourhood. The co-op has already looked at potential properties in Mission, Chilliwack, Trail, Delta, Salmon Arm and Langley Township. More details are available at bccraftfarmerscoop.com.
The model also calls for a separate distribution and retail setup for craft growers. It suggests consumption lounges, similar to what wineries and craft brewers are able to do.
Rasode believes the province should consider these changes. Top-quality product from experienced growers would enter the market, and relieve the shortage of supply. Legal medical producers holding MMAR licences could play a key role in this.
The ball is in the government’s court.
Frank Bucholtz is a columnist and former editor with Black Press Media. Email him at email@example.com.