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Why are B.C.’s leaders silent on cannabis legalization?

Jonathan Page is a professor of botany at the University of British Columbia and co-founder of Anandia Labs

Cannabis is one of the province's biggest cash crops, consumed by an estimated one in seven British Columbians, and a quasi-legal substance that is the subject of innumerable city-council meetings, media stories and police reports. It is hard to think of something more intertwined with so many current issues. So why has a cone of silence enveloped provincial politicians over cannabis legalization?

Premier Christy Clark has repeatedly deferred to federal jurisdiction over drug laws. "I am going to leave the marijuana debate to the federal government" she said in 2012, and hasn't strayed from that message.

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John Horgan's NDP, a party one assumes has more cannabis-friendly supporters than the BC Liberals, has been equally silent. Two NDP MLAs visited Washington and Oregon in April, 2016 to learn about their experience with legalization. There was little information since then.

After the news in late March that the federal Liberals would introduce legislation in April, B.C. Solicitor-General Mike Morris said his government has a cross-ministry working group that is conducting research but would not be discussing details until after federal legislation is released.

The legislation is to be tabled Thursday. With the provincial election four weeks away, cannabis needs to be on the agenda.

There is a lot at stake for British Columbia as Canada becomes the first G20 country to legalize non-medical cannabis use. The approaching legislation is widely expected to give provinces the job of determining how to regulate cannabis sales and use. Ontario's Premier has mused about using liquor stores for distribution. Alberta's Justice Minister spoke openly about her three-day trip to Denver to hear about Colorado's experience with legalization. Manitoba recently introduced their own legislation regarding public consumption of cannabis.

British Columbia languishes in a policy vacuum with no government or opposition politician willing to say a word.

Cannabis is a big part of the B.C. economy. Although it is difficult to accurately gauge job and revenue numbers for a largely illicit industry, by some accounts the economic impact of cannabis is bigger than agriculture or forestry. Scratch the surface of small towns such as Duncan, Powell River and Nelson, and you find cannabis as a pillar of the economy. There are also the B.C.-based medical-cannabis producers licensed by Health Canada contributing jobs and taxes to their communities.

Once considered the national leader for cannabis growing, and "B.C. Bud" renowned for its potency and quality, British Columbia has seen an erosion of this position under the federal Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR). Companies based in B.C. have only nine of the 41 licenses for legal medical-cannabis production, and probably less than 15 per cent of the production capacity. Ontario has 24 LPs and the industry seems to be gravitating to the greenhouse belt of Southwestern Ontario.

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Polls have consistently shown support for cannabis legalization in British Columbia is among the highest in the country. A Deloitte report from 2016 showed 42 per cent of B.C. adults support legalization. An NRG poll from February 2017 found B.C. support of 57 per cent. The quixotic attempt by Sensible BC to trigger a referendum on cannabis legalization collected more than 200,000 signatures in 2013.

There are good reasons for B.C. to champion the cannabis industry and push for an inclusive model of regulated cannabis production. This is an opportunity to both support rural economic development and to clean up an industry that has frayed nerves in many communities. Homeowners and police prefer a licensed grower next door rather than a sketchy grow-op behind a "Beware of Dog" sign.

And a dispensary operating under provincial regulations should not elicit anxiety by nearby merchants. Anne McLellan, the chair of the federal government's Legalization Task Force, has indicated her preference for a mix of producers including artisanal or "craft" growers.

This accurately matches the current configuration of the smaller B.C.-based LPs and the province's many non-licensed growers. The Task Force also suggested outdoor growing to reduce electricity consumption, which may favour the mild B.C. climate.

Whether Ms. Clark's Liberals or Mr. Horgan's NDP form the next government, and acknowledging that the BC Greens are a wild-card contributor to the balance of power, the victor will make important decisions about how to build the public-health framework for legal cannabis. Political choices on cannabis controls will go a long way to determining whether legal cannabis supplants the illicit marketplace.

The next premier will also face the challenge of responding to the possible harms of legal cannabis, both envisioned – for example, intoxicated driving – and unexpected. They will need to closely monitor and evaluate the implementation of legal cannabis to minimize the harms and maximize the benefits.

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British Columbia's political leaders need to acknowledge the significance of legalization for the province. While it may be convenient to wait for the introduction of federal legislation – perhaps counting on a delay in Ottawa to remove a controversial issue from the election agenda – this is a cop-out. The government elected on May 9 will be tasked with implementation at the provincial level. Will they work to ensure that B.C. growers are not marginalized under a federal licensing regime? Will cannabis be sold in dispensaries, liquor stores or pharmacies?

This is an opportunity for British Columbia – to ensure the health and safety of citizens but also to transition an industry that is a large but hidden driver of the provincial economy. More than any province, B.C. needs to get legalization right.

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