Growers of the world-famous “B.C. Bud” cannabis who want to go legal still have a long, uphill path through three layers of government, but the B.C. government’s latest effort to help them is getting high marks.
B.C.’s public safety, agriculture and jobs ministries have launched an online navigator, a step-by-step guide for marijuana growers and processors working through the regulatory maze that starts with Health Canada and extends down to skeptical and sometimes hostile local governments. It’s the latest effort by Premier John Horgan’s government to regain the province’s economic impact that accounted for half of Canada’s production before legalization in October 2018.
The B.C. Independent Cannabis Association was one of the groups consulted over the past year on what the craft cannabis industry needs to move from the darkness to the light in a province still dominated by black market sales. The association’s president, Courtland Sandover-Sly, said he was “quite thrilled” to see the result, a realistic guide to the task ahead.
“As a former consultant for cannabis startups, it comprises a lot of our initial conversations we would have with potential clients,” Sandover-Sly said in an interview with Black Press Media. “Very basic questions like, what is your zoning, what does the city say about cannabis, what does the regional district say about water usage, all these things.”
The biggest obstacle remains for smaller, craft growers trying to compete with big national producers that supply most of B.C.’s retail cannabis stores. That is the requirement to finance and build their facilities for inspection before they can even apply for a Health Canada licence.
Statistics Canada tracks legal cannabis sales by province. The latest figures show a steady rise in B.C. retail sales up to March, but B.C.’s legal sales remain well below Alberta’s. That’s partly because Alberta has more retail stores, but the key reason is the continued dominance of B.C.’s black market that retains a long-standing reputation for better and cheaper product.
The B.C. government reports that as of June 15, the province has 66 standard cultivation licence holders, 10 micro-cultivation licence holders, five licensed cannabis nurseries, 51 standard processing licenses and two micro-processing licences. Meanwhile the black market in B.C. has been estimated to hold onto as much as 80 per cent of B.C. sales.
Sandover-Sly says the anecdotal evidence he hears is that the COVID-19 pandemic may have strengthened the B.C. black market.
“People are buying their cannabis in parking lots and parks, to the point where if you bring it up at a house party and ask people where they’re getting their cannabis, you might be surprised that everybody’s buying from a personal connection as opposed to a retail store,” he said. “That’s not good. Everybody wants to see the legal market succeed to a degree. I think it’s only the extremes that want to see the legal market fail.”
Other industry associations have formed to develop local and small-scale production. The Nelson-based Craft Cannabis Association of B.C. is headed by Teresa Taylor, daughter of former Grand Forks mayor Brian Taylor, an early advocate of legalizing industrial hemp production.
Nationally, the Association of Canadian Cannabis Retailers is advocating for licensed stores to be able to sell online and deliver directly to customers. B.C.’s wholesale monopoly is run by the Liquor Distribution Branch, which retains exclusive rights to legal online sales delivered by Canada Post.