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British Columbia pushes for black market cannabis law, faces criticism from artisanal farmers

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Attorney General Mike Farnworth said in an interview that regulations could be less restrictive to encourage growth in the sector.

“There is still a lot of work in progress from three years ago,” he said.

“There are still some challenges for the craftsman side and the producers.”

Farnworth said he’s heard from industry members who have expressed frustration about regulations around taking cannabis to market as well as from retailers who don’t like security measures, such as frosted glass for their storefronts.

Farnworth said he sees “a lot of potential” in the sector and that easing regulations will help marijuana growers in the future.

He said monthly retail sales have risen dramatically every year, from $1.2 million in December 2018 to about $18 million in December 2019 and to $48 million in December 2020.

He said the county’s farm gate program, which will allow cannabis growers to operate a retail outlet on their property or deliver it directly to a retail store, will help craft growers as well as encourage those who work illegally to make the switch.

Farnworth said he expects the program to go into effect in the spring.

“We’re trying to work with the industry (and) to identify some of the challenges that we can deal with.”

Abra Brynne of the Kootenay Cannabis Economic Development Board was part of the team that helped black market growers transition to the legal model.

Breen said the council was set up to help an area with a long history of marijuana production benefit from legalization.

The county said in a press release that there were an estimated 2,500 small-scale cannabis producers in the area at the time of marijuana legalization.

The project in the central Kootenay region helped 53 companies receive assistance in navigating the federal licensing process, with 13 organizations obtaining licenses. The county government said 62 jobs had been created or moved from the illegal to the legal market by the time the program ended in July.

Breen said the program has seen some successes but “there is a long way to go.”

She said high insurance costs are deterring small farmers from starting the business and there is more work to be done to convince people not to buy illegal marijuana.

Brin said the county has been supportive of the pilot, but convincing illegal operators to make the switch has been a challenge.

“We still have this weird ban culture,” she said.

The government’s decision to launch a pilot project targeting black market producers was criticized by a group of legal farmers.

Todd Ferry, president of the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-Op, said that despite the government’s claims of success, he knew of many legal, small-scale farmers who struggled to navigate the bureaucracy to start their businesses.

Ferry said he struggled to get approval for his business in part because of its status as an outdoor marijuana producer, which needs more paperwork than indoor greenhouse growers, as well as its status as a co-op.

Part of the problem, Ferry said, is the amount of time it takes to grow marijuana outdoors combined with stricter regulations from Health Canada around storage and cultivation.

“The time it took, the costs were expected, but the cost of the delay killed us,” he said in an interview.

Health Canada said in a statement that it is committed to promoting a diversified market for cannabis growers and processors, including through small and micro licenses. She added that artisanal growers make up nearly 40 percent of all active marijuana licenses.

Veri said it took five years to obtain a license and sold his first batch of marijuana in early December.

He said the provincial government has paid too much attention to black market operators rather than working more closely with legal operators.

He said he and his group are not involved with illegal farmers, and would like to work closely with the government. Instead, he said his group and others like it have been sidelined in favor of producers who operated illegally and now want to switch to the legal side.

He said, “There was no help for people who were actually looking to hire people in this county…because BC decided to stand behind the black market producers and I think they backed the wrong horse.”

Ferry said the government could improve the lives of craft farmers by allowing them to sell directly to retailers, which would encourage more people to work legally, and create a similar quality assurance rating on BC’s Vintner’s used to make wine.

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on December 25, 2021.

Nick Wells, Canadian Press

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