Third in a series on B.C.’s craft cannabis industry.
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Finance Minister Carole James were the NDP’s point persons on pot a year before they formed a minority government with the B.C. Greens.
In 2016, Farnworth and James toured legal marijuana operations in Oregon and neighbouring Washington, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2012. As they prepared the NDP’s election platform on how to handle legalization, Farnworth remembers visiting an Oregon store that offered cannabis-infused ice cream.
“I asked, what’s the dosage like?” Farnworth said in an interview. “They said oh, a tablespoon. And I remember thinking, who eats a tablespoon of ice cream?”
With Health Canada restrictions on products and packaging to keep cannabis away from kids and prevent overdoses, B.C. stores won’t be selling ice cream when edible products become available in the weeks ahead. Farnworth is expecting a limited selection of cannabis edibles will pass Health Canada’s 60-day approval process for new products.
“They’ve made it clear there is not going to be a full range of products that you might see, say in Oregon where you can get ice cream for example,” Farnworth said. “You’re not going to see that here. We’re looking at late December to mid-January, is the latest information about when you’re going to see [edible] product in stores and available online.”
Edibles and beverages, or “Cannabis 2.0” in industry jargon, are another challenge for B.C. in keeping its small-producer craft cannabis industry from being overwhelmed by big players. Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the international beer giant that owns Labatt’s and Budweiser, has launched a joint venture with B.C.-based multinational cannabis producer Tilray to produce drinks with the main active ingredients, THC and CBD, by the end of 2019.
Canopy Growth Corp. has unveiled the first of its line of soft drinks, chocolates and other edibles under its Tweed brand, and Molson Coors predicts that beverages may end up with 20 per cent or more of the Canadian cannabis market. Molson Coors took a controlling interest in a joint beverage venture with Quebec marijuana producer HEXO, which is launching a national discount dried marijuana product called “Original Stash” that sells for $4.99 per gram.
After amending a half dozen B.C. laws to allow recreational cannabis sales, setting up a monopoly wholesale system run by the Liquor Distribution Branch and struggling to get government and private stores up and running, Farnworth also faced the task of dealing with stores that had opened without licences and simply carried on.
Enter the Community Safety Unit, a division of Farnworth’s ministry that works with police to shut down illegal sellers that still hold the vast majority of the B.C. cannabis market. Its raids included the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club, which operated for more than 20 years as a medical dispensary.
“We’ve had a good response,” Farnworth said at the end of October. “At last count, there have been 50-some-odd illegal operations that have either shut down voluntarily, or have had their product and the cash confiscated by the Community Safety Unit.”
Premier John Horgan says these challenges are unique to B.C., where illegal sales were allowed to proliferate for years. Dealing with that is one reason why B.C. stands to lose money on its first year of cannabis sales.
“We had a grey market that had to be shut down so that an above-board legal market could thrive in a fair way,” Horgan said as the B.C. legislature session wrapped up at the end of November. “We didn’t want people having an advantage because they had staked some territory illegally, and put those operators who wanted to be legal and above board at a disadvantage.”
Long-time grower Travis Lane, who supplied dispensaries and now has three applications in for recreational cannabis production on Vancouver Island, says there’s another reason B.C. has so far shunned legal marijuana marketed by big national companies.
“When you look at B.C., we have an educated purchasing populace,” Lane said. “We’re to the point where they’re going into these legal stores and trying it, and rejecting it for quality purposes or for cost. That’s where the market hasn’t caught up yet, is quality and cost.”