B.C. craft cannabis industry seeks changes from government

By Shannon Waters February 3, 2022

B.C. is “really missing the boat” on craft cannabis three years in, but that could change in 2022 with new programs set to be rolled out by the provincial government while Ottawa conducts a review of federal legislation.

Tara Kirkpatrick, one of several dozen micro-cultivation licence holders in B.C. and a board member of the BC Craft Farmers Co-op, told BC Today that regulations and requirements from federal, provincial and municipal governments are keeping smaller operators out of the legal weed business.

“They’re really missing the boat on these exciting new industry careers … on all these little Ma and Pa jobs that can be created within their communities and keeping that legacy of B.C. craft weed alive,” said Kirkpatrick, who grows cannabis on a heritage farm near Prince George, along with hay and produce, and is one of just 68 licensed micro-growers in B.C. since legalization arrived in 2018.

“It’s tough because you’re up against two strong battles right here in B.C. — your land [and] your zoning, and then your finances as well.”

Kirkpatrick is one of the few women overseeing a cannabis cultivation operation in the country (the only one in B.C., she says).

She said it took her more than a year to obtain the correct zoning to grow cannabis on her farm and another to build a facility to meet Health Canada’s requirements. Then she had to apply for a micro-cultivation licence.

“Now you’re at your two-year mark of just money, money, money going out of your pocket, and nothing coming in,” she said. “I think that restricts a lot of people because you’re putting out money with no guarantee of getting that licence.”

Even once her licensed operation was up and running, getting her product into the centralized purchasing and distribution system has been “a real nightmare.”

“It’s so hard to get your product to market because you have got to find a processor that’s willing to take you on, [and] then you have got to be able to sell it into the [BC Liquor Distribution Branch system],” she told BC Today. “If they decide, ‘I don’t like the sound of that cannabis’ for the day or whatever, they just don’t buy it.”

The NDP government’s promise to set up farm-gate sales for small-scale cannabis producers and to allow them to sell directly to licensed retailers — bypassing the BCLDB — will be “huge” for growers like Kirkpatrick when they take effect this year. But she feels the province has been “very slow” to make good on those promises.

“They’ve had two years of talks about it, but you can’t get anywhere with them or get a straight answer out of them,” Kirkpatrick told BC Today. “I am really looking forward to that first farm-gate sale — I think it will help promote small businesses like mine, that [people] can come direct to the farm, meet the grower and know that they’re getting a top-quality craft product.”

Direct sales would also be a boon — “It makes sense that we should be able to be selling direct to the stores, especially in your local hometown,” Kirkpatrick added. “The one thing B.C. is big on is shop local, stay local, promote local … so it really makes sense that we should be allowed to develop these relationships with the stores.”

Improving consumer access to B.C. cannabis — including through direct and farm-gate sales — is the largest area for improvement identified by the BC Chamber of Commerce’s Cannabis Working Group. Of the 13 recommendations issued by the group last month, eight concern consumer access with an eye to “unlocking” the provincial industry’s potential.

“Although the cannabis industry has deep roots in British Columbia, the legal cannabis industry has performed below or at par with national and provincial averages in terms of total non-medical retail store sales and sales per capita,” the group wrote. “These figures do not reflect the overall potential of the province’s cannabis market.”

The BC NDP and Ottawa could be doing more to support the west coast craft cannabis industry and create jobs, insiders say. (BC Craft Farmers Co-op)

Time for a reset

Beyond broadening sales options for small growers in B.C., the Craft Farmers Co-op is hoping to see big changes in cannabis policy at the federal level this year.

David Hurford, the organization’s volunteer secretary, says he believes Ottawa has finally realized there are issues with current regulations, especially when it comes to licensing micro-growers.

“The government has admitted the area that they need to really focus on is micro-cultivation,” he told BC Today. “They’ve more or less come to the same conclusion we have — micro rights are essentially broken, they’re not working and they need to be reset. So that’s positive — it just is taking quite a while.”

This year’s review of the Cannabis Act will be “make or break” for B.C., according to Hurford, who sees the province playing a critical role in the future of legal weed.

“We’ve been really just trying to highlight everywhere we can that this is a major jobs initiative for certain opportunities across Canada but particularly for B.C.,” he said. “We believe that reset needs to come from British Columbia because we are the province that is losing out the most by not having these craft farmers transition.”

And if Ottawa isn’t keen on overhauling its licensing regime to make things easier for micro-growers, B.C. should go its own way, according to Hurford.

“We do that in many other areas of federal-provincial jurisdiction where we have national rules, but the provincial governments essentially enforce them,” he told BC Today. “If we can’t get Ottawa to listen and accelerate this program so we can actually get farmers growing, then B.C. should control its own destiny.”

Just like growing (electric) lettuce, farmer says

The NDP government’s promised farm-gate and direct sales policies — as well as its consideration of licensed cannabis consumption spaces — “hold a lot of promise,” per Hurford.

“The problem is they released them a year and a half ago and nothing has happened,” he said. “We need to get farm-gate going now so we start to get tourists coming this summer who are dying to come and tour craft cannabis farms.”

The province could also be doing more to help B.C. growers get into the legal market, like providing funding to help cover some startup costs, Hurford said, echoing Kirkpatrick’s experience.

“Right now it’s all cost, all risk and very little reward  — even the ones that are getting licensed are finding that the market isn’t too friendly when it comes to them selling their product to the provincial government,” he said. “Even B.C., a government that you would think would be offering good deals for craft farmers in B.C., are not, and we’re getting lots of calls from other provinces who want to buy B.C. product and get it on their shelves and pay a good price for it.”

Hurford wants to see B.C.’s cannabis industry treated like the job generator he believes it could be with a helping hand from the province and a different ministry in charge.

“The solicitor general is doing great work but is not really built to run an economic development program,” Hurford said. “We think the jobs and innovation department really needs to take this on, along with the agriculture ministry … [for a] strong focus on our agriculture community and supporting farmers.”

Kirkpatrick agrees.

“I’m regulated through Health Canada — that is your public safety watchdog right off the get-go,” she said. “I don’t know why we have all these entities over top of us, because the average lettuce grower doesn’t have to go through the public safety ministry to market his lettuce out there.”

Retail issues persist

It’s not just cannabis producers frustrated with the system.

A group of licensed cannabis retailers from the Okanagan — dubbed the Okanagan Cannabis Collective — have called for Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to resign, citing “the proliferation of illegal brick and mortar and illegal online cannabis stores” in B.C.

“While it is said that eliminating the illegal market is your government’s number one mandate, It would appear that your government is more interested in undercutting private legal retail cannabis stores through your taxpayer-subsidized operations than achieving this goal through actual enforcement measures,” the group wrote in a letter sent to Premier John Horgan in October.

The minister’s office and the Community Safety Unit (CSU) — tasked with enforcing the Cannabis Control and Licensing Act — are “unwilling or unable” to take action, per the group, which has compiled a map of what it says are dozens of illegal cannabis retailers.

The minister wrote back to the group in December, thanking them for the map, which he said was passed along to the CSU.

“Decisions regarding enforcement activities are made by the director of the CSU and government cannot interfere with or direct the CSU on such matters,” Farnworth wrote.

The group wants cannabis sales exempted from provincial sales tax if the province won’t crackdown on illegal retailers, and to have the 20 per cent tax on cannabis vape products axed — but Farnworth says those issues would be better put to the finance minister.

B.C. boosted taxes on cannabis vape products by seven per cent in January 2020, bringing them in line with other tobacco products.

The BC Chamber of Commerce’s also opposes that measure, saying that “grouping nicotine and cannabis vape products together does not reflect the realities of the two industries’ supply chains, consumer base and regulatory environments.”