Industry members say candidates "missed an opportunity" to discuss cannabis distribution at last night's debate

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      Last night's provincial leaders' debate yielded some telling exchanges between Premier Christy Clarke, NDP candidate John Horgan, and Green candidate Andrew Weaver, and while some topics were discussed ad nauseaum, there was just one passing comment made regarding the future of cannabis distribution in British Columbia.

      While the comment, a dig made by Clarke to Horgan about his willingness to sell marijuana in liquor stores following a $100,000 donation from the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, may have indicated his bias towards that option, no party leaders indicated at the debate, or in their official platforms, how they plan to oversee the sale of cannabis. 

      As per the legislation proposed by the federal government, when cannabis is legalized, it will be up to provincial governments to regulate distribution.

      This will include determining the retail price of cannabis, deciding if it should be sold in the same retail locations as alcohol, and whether or not retail storefronts like dispensaries are appropriate points of sale.

      While issues like housing, the economy, and fundraising were priorities of the debate, government relations director for MMJ Canada Jamie Shaw told the Straight that the future of cannabis distribution in the province is an issue that's been overlooked by party leaders for too long.

      Jamie Shaw is worried that British Columbia's cannabis industry is being exported by the federal government to Ontario.
      Amanda Siebert

      "To me, it's an opportunity that's been missed for all of B.C.," she said. 

      "Our province's industry is being exported to Ontario if you look at the number of licensed producers in Ontario as opposed to B.C., and in my view, that's what a premier’s job is: to make sure that sort of thing doesn't happen."

      Out of a total of 43 federally licensed producers, 25 are registered in the province of Ontario, while just nine are registered in B.C.

      More recent data could not be found, but a 2004 study indicated that B.C.'s cannabis industry was worth up to $7 billion annually, representing nearly three percent of B.C.'s GDP and exceeding the combined revenues of the forestry and fishing sectors. This was well before the explosion of cannabis dispensaries in Vancouver.

      "In my mind, this issue underpins all the other issues that they were talking about," Shaw said. 

      "Christy Clarke appealed to people that own homes and have a children, and a lot of people are able to do that because of the cannabis industry. You hear them talk about things like forestry while they're ignoring something that is the backbone of British Columbia," she said. 

      According to the Cannabis Growers of Canada, as of September 2016, there were about 40,000 agricultural workers employed in B.C.'s cannabis industry. 

      Although no platforms make mention of distribution plans, leaders shared their ideas about the issue in a Vancouver Sun story published earlier this month. 

      Weaver said his party doesn't want to see the local industry overtaken "by big multinationals", and expressed support for a model similar to that of craft breweries, while also saying that there could be space for liquor stores and pharmacies to distribute cannabis.

      Horgan and Clarke both indicated that above all, their main concern was to create rigid distribution regulations in order to "keep marijuana away from children"—but while Horgan claimed to support the idea of liquor store distribution, Clarke did not.

      While Shaw said it bodes well for local businesses that the Liberal party isn't interested in liquor store distribution, more questions need to be answered.

      "They have missed a huge opportunity, because this could have definitely been a swing issue had somebody actually come out with a strong platform," she said. 

      Jeremy Jacob, president of CAMCD, co-owns The Village, a dispensary in Kitsilano, with Andrea Dobbs.
      Travis Lupick

      Jeremy Jacob, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) and co-owner of The Village dispensary, told the Straight that so far, no party leaders have distinguished themselves when it comes to the issue of cannabis regulation and distribution.

      Although he sees Weaver’s appreciation for craft growers as "a spark of something good", Jacob said that the leader could be overstepping his jurisdiction in stressing that model, as production is not going to be regulated by provincial governments.

      "It remains to be seen how things are going to be happen, but for us, the Colorado model is the one we'd love to see here," he said.

      "There, existing market dispensaries were given the first rights to get regulated retail licenses, and they're working with vertically integrated companies and industry groups, growers, and producers, to create strong businesses."

      In Colorado alone, there are currently 777 businesses licensed to cultivate medical marijuana, while 662 are licensed to grow retail marijuana. 

      For Jacob, what B.C. needs from the incoming government is the right for its existing industry to be regulated by the legal market.

      "The key thing, is that the local industry wants to be regulated—95 percent of dispensaries applied for licenses with the city," he said.

      "As business owners within city licensing processes, we don't expect a war on our businesses on the dawn of legalization—that would be very unexpected—and while we don't take anything for granted, we expect to see the existing dispensaries included in the market, and we're going to continue engaging and advocating for that."