The leaders of British Columbia's three main political parties have all spent time on the campaign trail praising its craft-beer industry, but none has said much about one of the other most popular intoxicants widely produced throughout the province: cannabis.
Ottawa is expected to legalize the drug as early as July 1, 2018, which means provinces and territories must get to work solving contentious policy issues of regulating the wholesale distribution and retailing of cannabis.
Critics worry B.C. could fall behind other regions of Canada and lose its advantage as a province whose illegal-cannabis industry has long put millions of dollars into the pockets of thousands of underground growers and sellers.
BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has been the most vocal in his support for bringing those in the province's underground cannabis trade under the regulatory umbrella. He has said his party supports marketing opportunities for small-scale "craft" growers and wants these producers to be able to sell to customers through B.C.'s provincial liquor agency.
A Victoria-based alliance of cannabis-related businesses has repaid that support by endorsing a handful of Green Party candidates across Vancouver Island. In a news release sent out Friday, the BC Independent Cannabis Alliance stated the provincial government should treat its industry identically to the craft-beer sector.
"From the perspective of the local cannabis industry, this is the most important election in the province's history," Alex Robb, general manager of Victoria's Trees Dispensary chain, said in the release. "Vancouver Island is home to many hundreds of people who make their living in the craft-cannabis industry, either growing small batches of plants as designated growers for people with a medical need, or processing cannabis into oils, edible products, tinctures or other value-added products."
Christy Clark said, if re-elected, her Liberal party would convene a group of experts to recommend how best to tackle a host of issues, with the core priorities of keeping the drug out of the hands of minors and profits out of the hands of organized criminals.
Dr. Jonathan Page, founder of B.C.-based Anandia Labs, which tests Canada's medical-cannabis supply for contaminants, said these are already the two main stated goals of the federal legalization bill making its way through Parliament, so provinces have the opportunity to focus on other issues surrounding the drug.
"[B.C.'s politicians] are so cautious about this issue with the electorate that none of them wanted to get out there and say 'this is an opportunity for this province,'" Dr. Page said. "It's an opportunity missed for everybody, and it also speaks to the fact that B.C. is poised to lose this industry to other provinces.
"New Brunswick is starved for jobs, their rural economy is suffering and they're putting government dollars into the industry already. Ontario has most of the licensed producers in the medical system and their premier and their provincial government seem to be quite active in considering policy, and here we are – the supposed nexus of cannabis, whether it's legal or otherwise – and we're still scratching our heads about where it should go."
NDP leader John Horgan pointed to sending two MLAs on a fact-finding mission to Oregon and Washington last year as proof his party is already studying how to keep the public safe once the drug is legalized, as well as maximize tax revenue while minimizing the black market.
"We've talked to people in other jurisdictions, we've learned from their mistakes, and we're going to make sure we do the best we can to have a seamless transition," Mr. Horgan said at an editorial-board meeting in The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau last week.
He had previously said he favoured selling recreational cannabis through the province's liquor stores, but said his party is open to what experts say on the distribution issue.
Neil Boyd, head of Simon Fraser University's criminology school and a scholar of prohibition, said this might be the toughest issue for provinces to solve.
The federal task force report on the government's legalization of cannabis recommended against selling the drug in liquor stores, noting concerns that mixing alcohol and marijuana leads to higher levels of intoxication. Before the task force issued its report last December, politicians in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario floated the idea of selling cannabis at such government-run outlets.
Pharmacies or private shops, such as the dispensaries currently illegal under federal drug laws, are also possible venues for the eventual distribution of cannabis, Prof. Boyd said.
Many of Alberta's mayors appear hostile to the retail sale of pot, Prof. Boyd said, which could cause problems if the face-to-face purchase of the drug is outlawed in that province after federal legalization.
Despite British Columbia's colourful history with the drug, there would have to be a large cultural shift for cannabis to ever become as popular as alcohol, Prof. Boyd said.
"Alcohol is used by about 80 per cent of people in most western cultures and cannabis is used by anywhere from 10 to 15 per cent – maximum," he said.