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B.C. Premier John Horgan, seen here at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Dec. 13, 2019, says he recalls being 'cocksure' that the province would 'fly through' marijuana legalization.

CHAD HIPOLITO/GM

B.C. Premier John Horgan’s mother was right, of course, about the dangers of hubris.

Mr. Horgan thought overseeing the transformation of the province’s cannabis trade from an underground market to a legal retail sector would be pretty easy. After all, British Columbia was the country’s largest producer of marijuana, famous for its B.C. bud, and hundreds of grey-market retail stores were already in operation.

But the transition has proved to be a headache that is still hanging around as the new year begins.

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“I was boastful, and this is why my mom raised me not to be boastful,” he said in an interview at the end of the first full calendar year of legal marijuana in Canada.

Mr. Horgan recalled how, as a freshman premier at his first gathering of Canada’s first ministers in the fall of 2017, the mechanics of decriminalization were still being discussed. Reporters asked him about how his province would handle the transition.

He bragged, at the time, that in some communities in B.C., illegal marijuana dispensaries were more ubiquitous than Starbucks coffee shops.

“I was cocksure, oh man – we’re going to fly through this, because we’re all about the weed in B.C.” he said this December.

In October of 2018, Canada formally caught up with B.C.'s entrepreneurial spirit, legalizing recreational cannabis.

It turns out that the well-established illicit distribution system was not the asset Mr. Horgan expected.

The switch to a legal product was beset by red tape, with legal stores slow to replace the grey-market shops that had operated before decriminalization. Producers of B.C. bud complain they can’t get their product into B.C.'s licensed stores. Those retailers who are following the rules are unhappy that some grey-market shops remain in competition. And consumers, accustomed to their high-quality local product, aren’t happy with what they are finding on the shelves.

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“We had such a well-established grey market, as well as a historic black market, that it’s been really tough to break those cycles and get the new consumers onto a path that’s legal and safe and all of the things that you want to see,” Mr. Horgan said.

It will be one of the continuing challenges in the year ahead, he said.

Mr. Horgan expects his Minister of Public Safety, Mike Farnworth, will get revenues from legal sales up where they should be. The province’s legal retail sales per capita, according to figures published in December by Statistics Canada, are the lowest in the country. Next door in Alberta, sales are four times higher.

The province is working to approve new licences for legal shops. As of Jan. 3, 175 non-medical cannabis retail store licences have been issued in B.C., although the government’s map shows that about 60 of those stores are still not open to the public.

In December, the Liquor Distribution Branch, B.C.'s wholesale distributor for non-medical cannabis merchandise, announced a selection of 260 new products have been approved – a range of edibles, extracts and topicals. But only a handful of the new items were expected to be available for retail sales in the first months of 2020, as manufacturers struggle to meet demand.

The province has started offering funding to help cannabis retailers make the leap to the regulated market. In November, Mr. Horgan’s government announced a $675,000 fund in the Kootenays for the Cannabis Business Transition Initiative to help startups and existing cannabis businesses overcome the barriers to operating in the legal economy.

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“I assumed that people would have preferred a legal, safe, quality, regulated product. Well, no. They want cheap and good, and they were getting that and now they’re not,” Mr. Horgan said. “I hear over and over again, we sell lousy weed here; it used to be good weed.”

The province was renowned for the quality of its black-market product, the result of decades of refinement. But government still is working out how to market it, within the limits of the plain, Health Canada-approved packaging and labelling requirements that are in place for existing cannabis products.

The Premier won’t say when he expects B.C.'s legal retail sales to meet national levels, but he expects 2020 to be a turning point.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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