If you’re feeling glum about the first year of legalization, you won’t get much sympathy from Anne McLellan.
The former federal Liberal health and justice minister, who chaired the 2016 cannabis legalization task force, sees the first year of legalization as a success, at least from a public health and safety perspective. As for the less-than-stellar business environment? Well that should have been expected, Ms. McLellan said.
“You do not create a regularized market in a year, you don’t deal with all the supply issues within a year, you don’t deal with all the logistics concerns, accessibility, price, choice issues,” she said at a conference hosted by the think-tank Canada2020 in Toronto the day before the anniversary of recreational legalization.
“One year in, we're starting to see that some of those wrinkles are already being worked out. And yes, the market with its ruthlessness is already working out some of those wrinkles, and regulators are learning, and licensed producers are working better with Health Canada, and provinces are getting on board,” Ms. McLellan said.
The industry’s feelings of frustration – whether around marketing restrictions or the slow pace of new product roll-out – are often directed at the federal regulatory system that was designed by Ms. McLellan’s task force. That system, however, was based on a mandate from the Liberal Government to restrict youth access and improve health and safety for cannabis users. Creating a vibrant private market was well down the government’s agenda.
"Public Health officers in this country spoke unanimously in the written submission to [the task force] that alcohol is a failed public health model… and the last thing we need to do is follow the alcohol model for cannabis," she said.
“Out of the box, it’s important to be cautious… You can always change something like a marketing restriction, and you can loosen them. But it’s awfully hard to take back what’s given. That’s one of the first lessons anyone in government learns.”
While the government never had a mandate to create marijuana millionaires, one of its key objectives was to eliminate the illicit market.
To date, legalization has been a failure on this file, due to a combination of a poor retail roll-out, low-quality supply, noncompetitive pricing, and a restriction on product selection and marketing. A recent report from Royal Bank of Canada analysts suggests that only 12 per cent of cannabis sales are happening in legal channels.
Again, however, Ms. McLellan objects to the characterization of black market conversion as a failure after only one year.
“At the end of the first decade of legalization, ten years, if we are able to strip out 80 per cent of the black market, this country should see that as a huge success. We still have black market tobacco and black market alcohol. So I just implore people to be reasonable about the expectations,” she said.
Ms. McLellan’s optimistic view was shared by task force vice-chair Dr. Mark Ware, an associate professor at McGill University’s school of medicine and, more recently, the chief medical officer of Canopy Growth Corp.
“What has pleasantly surprised me is we haven't seen major public health issues arising. There hasn't been carnage on the roads, and here haven't been massive numbers of teen psychosis episodes,” said Dr. Ware, who spoke on the panel with Ms. McLellan.
“There have been issues that we’ve begun to recognize: there is a vomiting condition, people taking overdoses and going to hospital with with hyperemesis. But now we can actually identify [the cause of the illness]... and we can address them in a serious way – they’re not hidden behind the curtain,” he said.
As we move into the second year of legal recreational marijuana, Dr. Ware did express concern about the lack of information around proper usage for edibles. Health Canada needs to expedite clinical trials that provide scientifically valid information about dosing for different edibles products, he said.
"We really need to find a way to support these studies very very quickly… otherwise we’re going to wind up with a Christmas holiday period where there will be people coming into the ER having taking one too many cannabis chocolates,” he said.