Budding craft cannabis industry could be economic balm, co-op says
After more than two years of legalization, B.C.’s legendary bud has yet to reach its full potential — both when it comes to quality and to recreational sales revenues.
That’s something David Hurford, interim secretary of the newly minted BC Craft Farmers Co-op, hopes the COVID-19 pandemic will change.
“The global headquarters of the cannabis industry should be in B.C.,” Hurford told BC Today in an interview. “We have the product that everybody wants.”
There are thousands of small-scale cannabis farmers in B.C. — many of whom have decades of experience producing high-quality, world-renowned product — but vanishingly few have been able to break into the legal recreational market.
Of the 1.2 million square metres of legal cannabis growing space approved by Health Canada to date, just 0.17 per cent is managed by craft cannabis operations, according to the co-op.
“We’ve been saying for a year or so that the [federal] regulations were a problem,” Hurford said. “No one really believed us. Now we see the numbers, and it’s obvious that there’s a problem and that B.C. has by far the most to lose out of that.”
Hurford — who served as a senior advisor to Chretien-era health minister Allan Rock during the development of Canada’s medical marijuana regime in the 1990s — is credited with spearheading the co-op’s new proposal to the federal and provincial governments, calling for regulatory changes and economic investment to give B.C.’s small-scale cannabis producers a leg up.
Amping up the craft industry could create $3 billion in direct economic impact and over 20,000 jobs across the province, according to the proposal.
What’s needed is a move from Ottawa to temporarily transition 30 per cent of the small-scale producers already licensed by Health Canada as “micro-medical cultivators” into the legal recreational market in time for the summer growing season.
The B.C. government counts just 10 micro-cultivation licences and two micro-processing licences in the entire province, compared to 117 standard licences.
“There’s only about 25 [micro-cultivation licences] in the country,” Hurford said, adding that there are already 6,500 small scale producers in B.C. with licences to grow medical cannabis. “Twenty-five is a joke. We need 2,000 in B.C. We need 3,000.”
Hurford maintains that if governments turn the right dials, B.C.’s craft cannabis industry could quickly become sustainable and “contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal, provincial and municipal treasury.”
“These jobs are literally shovel-ready. This is really about helping farmers through the transition and then making sure that they’re set up for success beyond,” he told BC Today.
B.C. bud could be bigger than craft beer with the right support
Making craft cannabis part of B.C.’s economic recovery is “very much on the agenda,” according to Premier John Horgan.
“We are confident we can move forward and put British Columbia in that place that most Canadians expected us to be, and that is as national leaders in the development of the sector,” Horgan told reporters Wednesday.
The province is “actively considering” changes to its retail model, according to the public safety ministry, such as farm-to-gate cannabis sales and allowing the private sector to sell cannabis online — something only the BC Cannabis Store is currently allowed to do.
B.C. has taken some steps to help its cannabis farmers. Last fall, the province dedicated $600,000 to helping cannabis farmers in the Kootenays transition to the legal market.
But so far, a sour mix of regulatory and banking rules has made this easier said than done for small producers.
What small-scale producers need most from the province is access to credit — something that can be difficult for farmers with links to the gray market to acquire. Meeting the qualification requirements for a federal licence can cost small farmers upwards of $200,000, Hurford said.
Financial support from government — both provincial and federal — wouldn’t hurt either.
“Treat the cannabis sector as the opportunity that it is … the same way that you work with other well-established sectors — forestry, tourism, the wine industry, technology,” Hurford said. “I think craft [cannabis] could be even bigger than [craft beer], frankly.”
Craft cannabis could be a pandemic recovery booster
Premier Horgan has been “an effective advocate” for B.C.’s craft cannabis sector, according to Hurford, but getting Ottawa to prioritize craft growers has been a struggle.
While there has been some acknowledgement that the current regulations are not serving small producers well, Hurford says there has been “a lack of urgency” on the part of federal officials — but the pandemic has changed that.
“There is now a sense of urgency at the federal level that did not exist, pre-pandemic — and that of course is around economic recovery. I think that there’s an opportunity and an opening now around innovation on the regulatory side,” he said.