Greg Engel is the CEO of Organigram Holdings Inc.
On June 7, the Senate voted to pass Bill C-45, the proposed rules related to the legalization of cannabis in Canada. The Bill is now back with the House of Commons along with a series of amendments recommended by the Upper Chamber.
A number of the amendments, including a ban on the home growing of cannabis, are particularly controversial. Commentators have noted some senators’ highly restrictive, almost antagonistic, approach to the legislation. At times, the Senate review seemed to almost disregard the two years of public and expert consultation that have gone into the development of this framework.
While it appears likely that the House and the government will ultimately reject a number of the amendments, it seems an opportune moment to remind ourselves why this process began and what we hoped to achieve. Among those objectives were the protection of youth and the elimination of the illicit cannabis market. Are we on course to achieving those goals? What, if anything, stands in the way of the safe, responsible and thriving legal cannabis market Justin Trudeau’s government first envisioned?
The Senate review and debate reminds us how important education is to mapping out a reasonable and reasoned path forward; a path that helps us achieve our original goals, while establishing a viable competitive market that balances commercial and social success.
They also remind us that fear should not write legislation. Two specific examples come to mind:
First, one of the issues the Senate grappled with is proposed limits on the potency of THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis. Some public-health proponents suggest that these limits will help protect consumers from the dangers of ingesting marijuana. This line of reasoning, while well intentioned, is also misguided and short-sighted.
In fact, it is physiologically impossible to smoke or ingest enough THC to have a lethal effect; estimates suggest you would need to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the normal dose. By comparison and on average, alcohol is estimated to be lethal at 10 times the effective dose.
What limiting THC does, however, is make it infinitely harder for the legal cannabis industry to compete with the black market. It is only through effective competition – that is, a marketplace that can offer consumers the full range of products they are looking for – that we can decrease the appeal of illicit sources. Imagine replacing all available alcohol with only light beer and you begin to see the challenge. This in addition to a limited product offering for the first 12 months of the program (edible cannabis products will not be legal until at least 2019) and we are fighting a black market foe with both hands tied behind our backs.
Second, if we are to successfully introduce Canadians to legal cannabis from trusted sources, cannabis producers and marketers must have a reasonable degree of flexibility to inform consumers of their choices when it comes to cost, quality and product attributes. From a policy perspective, this means that Bill C-45 must allow for responsible use of creative design and packaging.
Starving the illicit market means competing with it. Unfortunately, the amended framework proposed by the Senate places strict restrictions on the promotion of legal cannabis that are clearly counterintuitive to our collective mandate to eliminate the black market. We know well-packaged and branded products exist at illegal dispensaries. We also know brand development and differentiation will only become more important as cannabis consumption moves away from dried flower and toward edibles, oils and topicals, as we’ve seen in more mature markets such as Colorado and Oregon.
If consumers are to be informed enough to have a positive experience with cannabis products (the difference between a Sativa’s activating effect and an Indica’s sedating qualities, for instance), they also need basic information that may well be prohibited if the proposed amendments stand.
Without a doubt, a well understood, diverse recreational cannabis offering is in the best interests of companies that intend to sell cannabis. But if we refer back to our original goals – youth safety and starving the black market – we see a deeply interconnected solution. We can’t simultaneously shackle this new industry from a production and marketing point of view and expect it to achieve our more universal – and most important – objectives.