British Columbia has been a mecca for cannabis enthusiasts and growers long before the product became legal in Canada in 2018.
But the underground pillar of the province’s economy has not flourished despite the hard-fought battle for legitimacy, industry advocates say.
Political barriers continue to suffocate the lives of small artisan growers’ dreams and waste the legacy of BC Bud, said Marshall Anselmo of Grass Roots, a Vancouver Island company that markets exclusive strains of cannabis plants.
“There was a lot of hype, hope and dreams,” said Anselmo, who helped showcase producers’ pre-legalization and breeds cannabis with a medical license.
“But that kind of took a pretty quick turn,” he said.
“There are a lot of growers still in the weeds waiting to see how things will go.”
Although BC has competitive advantages, West Coast cadres of small-batch breeders simply cannot access the market, said David Hurford, secretary of BC Craft Farmers Co-op.
There are 6,500 medically licensed growers in the province, but only a fraction have shifted due to excessive regulation and licensing arrangements that favor large companies with deep pockets, said Hurford, a former policy analyst at the Federal Liberals.
“We have the best farmers in the world and they are being shut out,” he said.
“Everyone wants BC artisanal cannabis products, but the federal government has only approved 60 licenses in the first three years of legalization.”
The federal micro-cultivation license was devised to encourage smallholder farmers to gain access to the market and allow for the production of 200 square feet of cannabis.
But the risk and price tag associated with applying for the license is enormous, and breeders cannot come back with such a small footprint, Hurford said.
Anselmo agreed, noting that it could cost $ 500,000 to $ 1 million without a guarantee of approval.
“It’s a big risk in advance,” he said.
Municipalities responsible for zoning have a veto, and a micro-cultivation facility must be fully built and ready for production before it receives its final approval from Ottawa.
Combine that with falling marijuana prices and the sky-high property prices in BC, and small growers have a hard hill to chop, Anselmo said.
And artisan growers do not have direct access to consumers who typically want to buy local quality cannabis from growers they know – as they did before legalization, he added.
Craft growers must use the BC Liquor Distribution Branch as an intermediary to get their products to retailers at prices that are not necessarily sustainable, Hurford said.
If artisan farmers want a direct line to customers, they must apply separately for separate federal licenses to process and / or sell their products – even expensive and cumbersome routes.
“It’s so overly regulated, it seems like it’s built to fail,” Hurford said.
“It was not designed with artisan farmers in mind, and there seems to be some skew in the system towards them.”
The BC Chamber of Commerce also recently released a report calling for changes to increase consumer access, lower regulatory costs and taxation and design markets to “unlock” the potential of BC’s cannabis sector.
Proposals include allowing marijuana retailers (now able to accept online orders) to choose delivery services like Uber Eats or Skip the Dishes.
The chamber also called on the province to speed up a long-promised farm-gate program to strengthen rural agri-tourism and allow small growers to market directly to customers, as they do in the successful wine or craft brewing markets.
The province should also work with Ottawa to lower the high taxes associated with cannabis and base them on a percentage of sales instead of by price per capita. grams, the report states.
“The high rates are because of the money the government also thought would be there,” Anselmo said.
“But even though prices have fallen, taxes have remained the same,” he said, adding that the grower, as in any agricultural project, derives the least profit from their products in the supply chain.
Ottawa should also consider taxing on a large scale, he said.
“Small micro-growers are being taxed at the same rate as multimillion-dollar companies.”
Some things both the province and federal governments can do is help with financing, as banks are still reluctant to provide loans to the cannabis sector, Hurford said.
“Farmers have no access to capital and the banks will not touch them normally and it is very difficult to get insurance,” he said.
Governments need to provide economic development funding and invest in capacity, education, environmental technology and support under-represented groups like First Nations or women entrepreneurs, as they would in any other new sector, he said.
The county has promised it will roll out the farm-gate program by 2022, but it has been a long time coming, Hurford said.
“It’s a good policy, but it should be rolled out much sooner,” he said.
“How many opportunities have we missed, especially in rural BC, where it’s been such a difficult year?”
Regardless of the growing plant, Anselmo still has high hopes for BC’s long-term artisans, who have the advantage of being a respected, close-knit collaborative group dedicated to cultivating the very best products.
“The market still has to find out for itself, it’s only three years old,” he said.
“But the bottom line is that we have the growers, the product, and we have the name.
“Put BC on the label and people will check it out.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer