After Justin Trudeau’s emphatic election win and the Liberal’s clear campaign position on marijuana, many are convinced legalization is coming soon. However, the way in which this plant –both a medicine and a social drug – will be grown and sold is not clear. As a scientist who has studied cannabis since 1999, and as the founder of Anandia Labs (a Vancouver-based start-up focused on cannabis genetics), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the plant and it uses. Here I offer my thoughts on the path to cannabis legalization in Canada.
A Big Tent Policy
Like Liberal governments before him, Justin Trudeau practiced Big Tent politics to obtain a majority. Similarly, legalization has to offer a Big Tent so that the disparate parts of the existing industry – Licensed Producers (LPs), dispensaries and MMAR growers – are included. Health Canada and the 25+ LPs can be justifiably proud they have created a system to grow and distribute pharmaceutical-grade cannabis. But the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) are viewed as a failure by many for their inability to create a system that both serves patients and creates a viable industry. The Allard injunction, the proliferation of Vancouver dispensaries, the logjam of LP applicants and the slow patient growth for LPs are indicators of systemic problems.
In the same way that conflicts are ended by bringing the fighters into a government of reconciliation (think Northern Ireland), the successful implementation of legalization needs to provide opportunity for MMAR growers and dispensaries to take part. Failure to provide a means to enter a regulated system risks driving them further underground, thus thwarting the Liberal’s stated policy goal of reducing the illicit cannabis trade. Colorado’s legalization experiment has demonstrated just that. I support stringent screening to prevent organized crime from entering the system but let’s not exclude all of those who were on the wrong side of the War on Cannabis.
It has been the activists, the lawyers, the researchers and the entrepreneurs who have led the way. Let Canada’s marijuana policies be created through broad-based consultations, focused on safety and fairness, by and for the people.
Although dispensaries lack Health Canada licenses, they operate with social license in Vancouver, Victoria and other municipalities. The City of Vancouver withstood strong pressure from the Harper government over their dispensary licensing program. The City of Victoria is now in the process of creating regulations. It is probable that the exclusion of dispensaries from any federal regulatory framework will result in BC municipalities going solo on this issue. The election of 17 Liberal MPs from BC and the appointment of Vancouver-Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould as Justice Minister hopefully means that this province’s special concerns will be taken into account.
Create a Regulated and Fair Marketplace
It is possible to safely grow cannabis at many scales from small outdoor gardens to massive indoor factories.The 2013 Liberal Party draft marijuana policy paper (PDF) suggested that production encompass “very small farms to medium size and large-scale operations”. Jamie Shaw of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) wrote a blog post proposing that the cannabis production could resemble Canada’s brewing industry where industrial behemoths like Molson Coors co-exist with craft breweries.
I hope Canada can avoid the ideological battles – “Hippies vs Suits” – by licensing big and small producers, and dispensaries. Just as Molson Coors doesn’t own the store or pub where their beer is sold, and drug companies don’t own pharmacies, it seems unlikely that producers will also own retail outlets for recreational cannabis.
Alcohol licensing in Canada generally prevents “tied houses” except in the case of brewpubs and wineries, in part to avoid vertical integration leading to monopolies and to discourage intemperate consumption. Indeed, Washington State has created separated licenses for growers, processors and retailers. Although the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Cannabis Policy Framework recommended sales through a government monopoly, I think a system of licensed dispensaries makes sense.
Allow Growing for Personal Use
It is difficult to contemplate a system that allows purchase of cannabis but not personal growing. I favour six plants (in flowering stage) with a cap on total plants in a household. However, personal growing has to be for personal consumption, as home beer and wine making is now, and attempts to sell this product must have legal consequence. I strongly support the Liberal’s policy goal of limiting youth access and worry that personal growing will be a loophole that could be used by minors and those who supply them. The judge’s decision on the Allard case, which revolves around the right of patients to grow their own medical cannabis, now has added importance as legalization is contemplated.
Don’t Forget Medical Cannabis
Cannabis has legitimate medical uses and the Supreme Court’s decision on R. v. Smith affirmed the right of Canadians to use it as a medicine. Medical access must be ensured under a legalization framework and not subsumed into a recreational system as the aforementioned Liberal policy white paper suggested. Although cannabis has mostly resisted attempts at “pharmaceuticalization”, I think the medical cannabis field will move towards standardized extracts and dosage control products like patches and micro-dose inhalers.
Health Canada can support this by encouraging R&D, fast-tracking approvals and allowing pharmacy distribution for over-the-counter products. Even with non-smoked options available, many patients want to access herbal cannabis. Provincial and private insurance plans should cover cannabis products obtained via doctors’ prescription.
Health Canada can support this by encouraging R&D, fast-tracking approvals and allowing pharmacy distribution for over-the-counter products. Even with non-smoked options available, many patients want to access herbal cannabis. Provincial and private insurance plans should cover cannabis products obtained via doctors’ prescription. To further support patients, the federal government should remove the GST from prescribed cannabis (prescription drugs are zero-rated (i.e. GST exempt) in Canada but not medical cannabis).
A Federal Cannabis Act?
A crucial question is where to place cannabis in Canada’s legal and regulatory system. Comparing cannabis to other drugs consumed in our society shows that it is unlike the others. Alcohol – Canada’s foremost “recreational” social inebriant – doesn’t have medical uses. The other plant that humans consume as a social drug, tobacco, is more addictive and dangerous than cannabis. If cannabis and cannabinoids are removed from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) then they have to be moved somewhere.
One option is to give the provinces jurisdiction as the Constitution does for alcohol. Another is for cannabis to be transferred to the Natural Health Products Regulations (NHPR), which Health Canada uses to regulate herbal remedies and vitamins. Despite being a herbal drug, cannabis is not really an NHP: it is both more efficacious as a medicine and a more potent mood-altering substance than other NHPs.
In my opinion cannabis sits somewhere between a controlled substance and an NHP in the regulatory landscape but I don’t think it is productive to treat cannabis as either. Nor is it useful for it to be lumped with alcohol or tobacco. It is simply and uniquely cannabis. Amending laws created for prohibition is not likely to work as they were created to demonize cannabis. Let’s give cannabis its own laws and regulations that allow it to exist simultaneously as a medicine and a social (recreational) drug. Is the solution a pragmatic federal Cannabis Act or even a Psychoactive Substances Act for a new, post-prohibition era?
Mitigate the Environmental Impact
When they launched MMPR in 2013, Health Canada predicted that about 310,000 authorized patients might exist by 2024 consuming, by my calculations (1), about 68,000 kg annually. The authors of the Liberal Party draft marijuana policy estimated that a fully legalized cannabis industry is about ten times larger, requiring 800,000 kg per year. Most cannabis in Canada, licit or illicit, is grown indoors under high-intensity lights. Based on some assumptions (2), 800,000 kg of indoor cannabis will require about 4 billion kWh of electricity – as much as a large Canadian city (~360,000 households)!
The Trudeau government will contemplate legalization just as they renew Canada’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s design an expanded legal cannabis industry to be carbon neutral from the onset.
While MMPR allows production in greenhouses, and LPs like Aphria, Tweed Farms and others are growing under glass, Health Canada’s focus on physical security means that most grow in concrete structures. The environmental impact of other externalities e.g. fertilizer runoff, water consumption and loss of farmland to industrial development also need to be taken into account. Greenhouses, outdoor growing, LED lighting, and labelling of carbon-neutral cannabis (“Polar Bear Friendly”) are ways to reduce the environmental impact while maintaining quality and safety. Situating large growing facilities in regions that have access to hydroelectric or renewable power makes sense. The Trudeau government will contemplate legalization just as they renew Canada’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s design an expanded legal cannabis industry to be carbon neutral from the onset.
As a scientist who has conducted cannabis research at universities, government labs and in the private sector, I am very aware that the science of cannabis has lagged because of prohibition and restrictions on research. Exemptions and licenses for university researchers are difficult to obtain, there is limited access to seeds and chemical standards, and a stigma still exists for those working on this controversial plant. On the medical front, clinical trials proceed at a slow pace due to the lack of dedicated funding.
As Dr. Mark Ware and I discuss in our recent Nature perspective, Canada has the chance to lead globally by streamlining research approvals and allocating some of the tax dollars collected from cannabis sales for research on all aspects of cannabis: plant biology, chemistry, pharmacology, clinical uses, social science and agricultural technology. A world-class Centre of Excellence on Cannabis at UBC or another Canadian university would have a huge impact.
Consumer Safety is Paramount
A major focus of legalization should be ensuring consumer safety through testing and labeling. Herbal cannabis has a reasonably good safety profile and, apart from overdoses caused by edibles, there are few documented cases of illness. However, contaminants introduced during production and inaccurate dosage are dangerous. Analysis of cannabis samples in Colorado and Oregon showed widespread pesticide contamination; residual solvents may be present in extracts; and a study of the THC content of edible products in Washington and California found THC levels were accurately labeled only 17% of the time.
In my opinion cannabis sits somewhere between a controlled substance and an NHP in the regulatory landscape but I don’t think it is productive to treat cannabis as either. Nor is it useful for it to be lumped with alcohol or tobacco. It is simply and uniquely cannabis.
LP-grown medical cannabis is perhaps the safest in the world since it undergoes rigorous testing. But the MMPR testing requirements treat cannabis like a pharmaceutical product rather than a plant. Coffee, tea, fruits and vegetables are grown outdoors, not in hermetically-sealed chambers, and yet are safely consumed. Legalization needs universal testing and informative labeling but not over-regulation. Consumer education about the effects of cannabis also needs to be addressed from the outset.
Hemp is closely related to marijuana but lacks THC. In Canada hemp is a niche crop that has developed into a lucrative industry on the Prairies. Like marijuana, hemp needs smarter regulations – and fast. Canadian hemp has competition since the 2014 US Farm Bill allowed hemp to be grown for the first time since 1937. Farmers in states like Kentucky are embracing hemp and seem to be able to use it as a source of cannabidiol (CBD), which has a range of therapeutic properties. However, Canadian farmers can’t extract CBD since it is on Schedule 2 of the CDSA despite being non-psychoactive. Hemp also has some unusual restrictions like a minimum planting area of 4 hectares (10 acres) and a ban on farmers saving seed. While the federal government is sorting out marijuana, they should also reform the hemp regulations. Innovation is needed to help Canada’s farmers stay at the forefront of hemp production.
Legalization is a complex undertaking, and it doesn’t make sense to do it all at once. What does make sense is practical changes now, using existing laws and regulations, while major policy is debated. Permit limited possession and personal growing via a Section 56 exemption from the CDSA, which is an authority that the Minister of Health has now. License dispensaries and allow them to sell cannabis for medical use, including LP-grown cannabis. Create a mechanism to transition MMAR growers to micro-LPs or grower’s co-ops. Open up pharmacy distribution for non-smoked products. Remove the GST on medical cannabis. And once full legalization is introduced, implement it in stages and be prepared to adjust the tax rate to outcompete the black market.
As a final point, I hope that those tasked with charting Canada’s route to legalization will consult broadly and act on what they hear. Health Canada has burned bridges over the years by consulting with stakeholders, and then putting out regulations that don’t take their input into account. Only a few politicians have spoken up about cannabis reform: Larry Campbell, Libby Davies, Joyce Murray, Scott Reid and Justin Trudeau at the federal level; Gregor Robertson and Kerry Jang in Vancouver. This tiny list (with no Provincial representatives) points to the fact that legalization is likely to occur despite the neglect of most elected officials. It has been the activists, the lawyers, the researchers and the entrepreneurs who have led the way. Let Canada’s marijuana policies be created through broad-based consultations, focused on safety and fairness, by and for the people.
- 85,000 kg = 310,000 patients x 0.6g/day x 365 days/year
- 4 billion kWh= 800,000 kg x 5000 kwh/kg (see p. 10 of Washington State document)