Bring on pot perestroika-and improve Canadian governments’ fiscal capacity to respond to COVID-19

Every day, there’s more awful economic news related to the novel coronavirus.

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Every day, there’s more awful economic news related to the novel coronavirus.

Concerts are being cancelled. Professional sports leagues are on hiatus. Airlines are warning of staff layoffs. Restaurant managers are seeing more empty tables than ever before.

Cultural industries and tourism have been hobbled. Universities have become ghost towns.

We’ll soon see the impact on transportation authorities as they experience lower revenue from fares and gas taxes.

This economic contraction will likely leave federal and provincial governments awash in red ink. It could jeopardize major infrastructure projects, like planned rapid transit lines.

So why not look at cannabis as a way to address this malaise? Far more weed freedom could bring oodles more money into government treasuries.

According to the 2019 National Cannabis Survey, only 29.4 percent of Canadian cannabis users relied exclusively on legal sources for their pot.

‘Many consumers obtained cannabis from multiple sources,’ Statistics Canada noted in February. ‘When all those who reported getting at least some of their cannabis from a legal source are combined, the percentage of consumers accessing (at least some) cannabis legally increased to 52.0% in 2019.’

However, the legal market isn’t nearly as appealing in B.C., where only 36 percent cannabis consumers purchased even a portion of their weed through licensed retailers.

Part of the reason is that the price is significantly lower on the black market, according to Statistics Canada.

Another factor is B.C.’s large number of craft cannabis growers. They have their own distribution networks operating outside of the legal framework.

The provincial government estimates that there 2,500 illegal weed growers in the Kootenays in southeastern B.C. Minimal efforts are bringing a handful of them into the legal sphere.

Who knows how many more people without federal licences are growing on the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island?

These craft growers produce popular cultivars that aren’t available through corporate cannabis giants. These strains can offer tremendous relief to medicinal users.

Yet more than a year after cannabis has been legalized in Canada, there are still no opportunities for farm-gate cannabis sales in B.C., where consumers can sample and purchase pot directly from these craft producers.

This is permitted with wine but not with weed. It’s been promised but not delivered.

B.C.’s cannabis-enforcement czar, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, has said all the right words about farm-gate, but so far this hasn’t been backed up with any legislation.

Cannabis marketing remains in the shadows

That’s not all. Last September, the B.C. government banned any promotion of cannabis at liquor-licensed venues and events, including small gatherings.

That led to some scathing comments on Straight.com.

‘Last year a family friend (40yo) died from alcohol consumption,’ wrote Donald Beaulieu. ‘I have been smoking pot for over 50 yrs and have never known anyone to even end up with a hangover.’

The B.C. government’s modus operandi has been to shut down the illicit market—especially if anyone has a rap sheet for illegal weed sales—rather than making a higher priority of integrating these cannabis experts into the above-ground economy.

Choosing the latter route would boost tax revenues to pay for better health care, including for those who contract COVID-19.

The euphemistically named ‘Community Safety Unit’, which is the cannabis enforcement arm of the Ministry of Public Safety, has reportedly visited more than 250 unlicensed retailers.

Its investigators have seized huge amounts of weed, edibles, concentrates, and extracts. It’s designed to boost the government-owned monopoly wholesaler’s bottom line.

Billy clubs rather than carrots seem to be the preferred option.

The recent provincial budget revealed that the Liquor Distribution Branch generated $10 million less income this year than was predicted in the finance ministry’s second quarterly report.

That’s ‘mainly due to delayed rollout of cannabis stores and lower-than-anticipated demand’.

In the spring session of the legislature, B.C. NDP politicians have introduced 13 government bills. Not a single one has anything to do with loosening access to cannabis.

Most galling, there’s nothing curbing municipal or regional governments’ zealous efforts to tie this industry up in red tape through zoning restrictions and by delaying building permits.

This doesn’t appear to be a provincial priority.

These municipal and regional obstacles make it even more difficult for craft growers to obtain federal permits, which would lead to more tax revenues.

It’s dumb public policy.

Imagine how much economic activity Destinations B.C. could generate if it promoted weed tourism in the same way that it promotes wine tourism and craft-beer tourism.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, and an economic shot in the arm, if visitors from Alberta and Saskatchewan could check out craft-growing operations in the Kootenays to sample authentic B.C. Bud?

Cannabis edibles were kept off the market for a year after weed was legal in Canada. Credit: Creative-Family/Getty Images

Feds also fumbled the ball

We can’t let the federal government off the hook, either.

God forbid that Canadian cannabis producers and private retailers would be allowed to advertise like liquor, wine, and beer producers and retailers are able to do.

That’s just too devastating for our prime minister to contemplate. He wants all packaging to be as bland as possible to save the children, who aren’t even allowed into cannabis stores in the first place.

It hasn’t helped that the federal government delayed the introduction of edibles, extracts, and topicals by a year.

The feds also imposed a cumbersome approval process om these products, further delaying their arrival in the vast majority of stores until after Christmas.

In the meantime, investors slaughtered Canadian cannabis stocks, leaving these companies less well capitalized to seize on this opportunity when it finally arrived.

At all levels of government, the level of political incompetence has been breathtaking.

Now is the time to fix this situation.

Bring on pot perestroika, beginning with better access for B.C.’s craft producers.

The feds then can get on with allowing sponsorships, advertising, more imaginative packaging, and retail outlets specially created for medical users.

Here’s the root of the problem: most politicians treat cannabis like a coronavirus—a dangerous substance that must be isolated to protect the public.

End the moral panic once and for all.

Charlie Smith

I'm the editor of the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver, as well as a CannCentral contributor.

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