Lift was able to speak briefly today with Legalization Task Force Vice Chair Dr. Mark Ware about some of the details in the Task Force’s report. We discussed issues like the continued taxation of medical cannabis, the impact on medical patients, the inclusion of ‘craft’ growers, and what Dr. Ware sees for himself now that the Task Force’s report is complete.
Ware says he feels the Task Force has ‘turned over every stone’ in their nearly six-month quest to engage Canadians on legalization, and that it’s now time for Canadians to work within their communities to help ensure the process unfolds smoothly over the coming years. You can read our entire interview below.
There is a lot of concern from some in the existing cannabis 'community' that legalization means the 'corporatization' of cannabis in Canada. The report specifically mentions the need to allow for the integration of some existing, small scale and non profit retailers and growers. Was this a difficult point for the task force to agree on? What was some of the input received on this that helped sway the group's stance on this issue of 'craft' growers?
“The Task Force really did not have much difficulty recognizing the importance of a diversity of methods of cannabis access, including production. The compelling stories that we heard from growers, both in the licit sector and those who are in the queue applying for licenses, made us very aware of the fact that in order to legitimately and effectively displace the black market we needed to have a variety of mechanisms for cannabis to be cultivated and made accessible and that would effectively displace the black market.
“So leaning on and recommending a system where there was diversification of production mechanisms, including outdoor cultivation, respectful of environmental considerations, including personal production in terms of individual efforts, but also recognizing the need for a very large production capacity to meet the recreational market: these were all considerations that the task force really was quite effective in hearing and then putting into its recommendations."
Were there are any points where messages of integrating some existing illicit operators were a challenge for some of the Task Force members with a strong law enforcement background?
“I think for many of the points around the Task Force's recommendations, you can imagine that many of us had different perspectives on many of the issues, so what was really both heartwarming and encouraging for us was how easily we were able to work towards recommendations that were a good fit for everybody.
“I think with respect to law enforcement, the key issue was often making sure that the regulations were clear to understand and relatively easy to enforce. I think from law enforcement’s perspective, people wanted to have straightforward, bright lines — what was going to be legal, what was not — and that we could transmit effective recommendations to the stakeholders involved, both the growers, producers, and the governments at all levels, that there was clarity in what we were recommending, and that the police and law enforcement community have capacity to be able to actually respond to it and enforce those laws that were going to emerge."
“I would like to... ask Canadians who are reading this is to think about what this means for you as an individual, as a family member, as a parent, as a child, as a professional, about how you can be involved in making this process work safely and smoothly, working within the communities and within the municipalities to understand what this will mean for you and for your community. I think this is over to Canadians to pick up the ball and run with it.” - Dr Mark Ware, Vice Chair of the Canadian Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation
Do the recommendations for age limits impact anyone under 18 who is currently accessing via the legal medical regime?
“In terms of the medical regime, one of the caveats that we place around the age limit, is that it applies for non medical cannabis use. We are fully aware of the fact that there are younger people who are using cannabis or cannabinoids for medical purposes and that those situations are not going to fall under that restriction of 18 or over. We carve out in some areas special exemptions for medical cannabis users for whom this is a legitimate therapy.”
You know cannabis quite well and have been studying cannabinoids for many years. What’s something that you learned or that changed your mind on something through this process with the task force?
“Two things. One, it confirmed for me that the clinical evidence... it confirms to me sometimes how challenging it is to find good quality data. It also impressed upon me how different people with different perspectives can interpret the same data in different ways. For us, finding a balance between concerns from one side and concerns from another, try and find that middle way, was sometimes challenging even though both sides we were hearing from were looking at the same data, ostensibly.
“I think in terms of a non scientific learning point for me, it was being aware of the diversity of Canadian communities that this regulatory framework will impact, from big urban centres to tiny, small hamlets in the far North where there is no road access and trying to build a framework that can somehow house all of these different stakeholders and constituents was a political reality for me that was a real eye-opener.”
"Until we can determine that the cannabis materials that are being used strictly for medical purposes have been studied to the point where they receive the level of evidence and can receive an approval as a medicine in much the same way in that any other medicines receive drug identification numbers and have clinical trial data to back them up, we could not justify issuing a request that these products not be taxed whereas products being used for non-medical purposes would be taxed." - Dr Mark Ware
You refer to the complexity of concerns on both sides. The report is very extensive. Do you have any thought on the ease or complexity for the government to process all of this info and be able to craft new legislation that they can present by spring of 2017?
“We’ve worked closely with a Secretariat, who have been — and I have to say, unbelievably hard working and supportive in helping us get the work done that we’ve been able to finish today — and I think that recognizing that the Secretariat has already got its eyes on the next phase of this process, the report, now that its public, now that it goes to the Ministers, clearly there will be impetus for government to take this and run it forward, but I don’t think we should be under any illusions that some of the groundwork is already underway.
“I obviously can’t speak for the government and wont, but I think they recognize the urgency of getting things moving quickly and we have reflected to them the importance of getting some of the research and education efforts up and running as soon as possible even as the legislation is being drafted.”
Any comment on when the first retails sales might be possible?
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I think there are lots of twists and turns that still have to be negotiated as the government puts this forward and I’m not in any position to try to anticipate dates at this time.”
One point that has jumped out to a lot of people is the recommendation of the same tax on medical and recreational marijuana. I know many in the medical community are concerned with taxation of a medical product. Can you speak to why that recommendation is there?
“We heard a lot of concern about the price of cannabis for patients and we recognize that this can be a challenging issue. I think in terms of looking at the medical cannabis access as a separate entity from the non-medical cannabis program that we were also trying to incorporate into this regulatory framework, issues of price were a consideration. But until we can determine that the cannabis materials that are being used strictly for medical purposes have been studied to the point where they receive the level of evidence and can receive an approval as a medicine in much the same way in that any other medicines receive drug identification numbers and have clinical trial data to back them up, we could not justify issuing a request that these products not be taxed whereas products being used for non-medical purposes would be taxed.
“We heard from states like Washington and Colorado where they had tried with differential tax regimes, they have been very challenging, and we really wanted to aim for simplicity in terms of making a regulatory framework that could be operationalized. And we also want to stimulate the industry who are supporting and investing in medical cannabis research to have a pathway to do so, and then if that happens and at that point those products would be tax exempt and would qualify as medicines.”
“It was clear to us that a lot of people have been thinking about this for a long time and that many of the questions had been well-thought-through, obviously there were differences in the answers or the positions." - Dr. Mark Ware
One of the points made in the report is that products need to not be seen as appealing to children, and specifically mentions candy. Later in the report, it refers to regulating baked goods. It seems like drawing the line between baked goods and sweets is difficult. Where is the distinction?
“This is one of those areas where the details will really matter and I think as we start to see a process where the law is being written, these kinds of questions will clearly come into sharper focus. I think the principle is something that we also heard reflected in some of the regulatory approaches in the US states, the principle of ensuring that cannabis extracts and derivatives not be packaged in such a way that they appeal to children is really part of that strong public health message that the goal of this whole exercise is to minimize the use of cannabis by the youth, especially the very young. Those are the ones who are most susceptible to that kind of branding and packaging.
“So while we recognize that a chocolate may be as appealing to an adult as it is to a child, the issues around labeling and around packaging in such a way that do not make it have, you know, cartoon characters, and I think there are candy-wrapper-type approaches that will clearly fall short of what we intend to provide in terms of advice about avoiding marketing to children.”
In reference to earlier comments about capacity. The report mentions the need to greatly increase licensing, inspectors, and training. Can you talk about the feedback and processes that informed that conclusion?
“I think we recognized that estimating the size of the market that would be required to fill in by a licensed producer network, it was clear that a good deal of capacity needed to be built. With that there needed to be the capacity within the regulatory body itself to be able to issue the licenses, monitor the activities of the companies licensed, enforce infractions of those licenses, so the recommendation was to ensure that the infrastructure was well placed and well resourced to be able to operationalize and then monitor these licensed production facilities, as the need for capacity is increased. These concerns were felt as equally by the producers themselves as by those people who would be potentially consumers, so I think this is just a pragmatic recognition that this is going to require additional resources within the departments responsible for enacting this all.”
The Task Force spoke with various US stakeholders who have experience in legal US States. What do you think are some of the fundamentally different approaches to legalization of cannabis between Canada and the US?
“I think the most fundamental difference is that what Canada is proposing to do is a federal initiative, initiated by and supervised by the Federal Government of Canada, whereas in the United States the initiatives have all been state-run initiatives. So the concerns among the states in terms of how they roll out and implement their legal cannabis frameworks are always done under the watchful eyes of their federal government and with the concerns that they might have and this includes the financing, banking, the concerns about policing and law enforcement and interstate commerce, and so on, whereas in Canada, of course, with it being a federally-mandated initiative, those concerns are not present. But I think in the Canadian context we have the size of the country, we have diverse regional variations, so we have our own set of challenges in Canada, but I think the biggest one is the fact that here in Canada it's a federal program whereas in the US it’s predominantly state by state.”
Now that the Task Force has put in their report and this process is complete, what’s the next step for Dr Ware?
“I think the next step for me was going back to doing what I was doing before the task force began, which is to focus on research and education. There is and continues to be a strong need for research, especially clinical trials which is my area of interest, but also monitoring safety of cannabis use in patients. I can see some important opportunities for trying to support some of the broader public health research and if it’s possible to work with large groups of researchers across the country to ensure the research we do is well supported and well conducted, that will be my main focus.
“Also the education part, getting (out) the message about what cannabinoids are, how they work, getting the data out to health care professionals who look after our patients, getting it out to the public who need to understand what cannabis is and why it’s important. These will be the focus of the next few years of my life, I would imagine.”
What do you think is one thing that no one is asking, no one is paying attention to, in terms of legalization of cannabis?
“I don’t think I can answer that question easily. I think we’ve spent the last five months really picking through — as far as I can tell — every aspect of the cannabis legalization framework that I can think of. It reached the point towards the end where it began to feel like we have pretty much turned over every stone, which means we asked a lot of questions.
“It was clear to us that a lot of people have been thinking about this for a long time and that many of the questions had been well-thought-through, though obviously there were differences in the answers or the positions. I think this a subject for which there is considerable expertise, not all of it illuminated in the same way, obviously multiple different perspectives, but I think that right now Canadians can feel as though there are a lot of people who can contribute significantly to making this work.
“I think fundamentally, what I would like to reflect on and ask Canadians who are reading this is to think about is what this means for you as an individual, as a family member, as a parent, as a child, as a professional, about how you can be involved in making this process work safely and smoothly, working within the communities and within the municipalities to understand what this will mean for you and for your community. I think this is over to Canadians to pick up the ball and run with it.”