The recent marking of the 5-year anniversary of cannabis legalization has raised numerous observations about the sector’s issues. While most of the statements I’ve read have expressed a business perspective, there’s no shortage of other opinions. A broader telling of our collective experience can be found in The Legislative Review of the Cannabis Act: What We Heard report, the first big shoe to drop in the mandated review of the legislation and its implementation.
The report was released in October following six months of consultation with stakeholders and serves as a scoping document for the final report before its tabling by March 2024.
There will be some further listening but those hoping for major changes to the cannabis framework are likely to be disappointed. The expert panel undertaking the review were asked to examine how the framework is working in practice. Their task is to suggest how to make it work better, not challenge its main purpose or approach.
It’s a noteworthy piece of work, laid out in key subject areas each including an overview of measures set out in the cannabis framework with data and observations as context for what informants told the panel. To appreciate the findings, it’s worth considering the panel’s makeup and the affiliations of those presenting their views.
The panel is chaired by a former federal deputy minister of health and justice, two professors of psychology/psychiatry, an expert in mental health & addictions, and an indigenous criminal lawyer. They heard more than 200 presenters from the cannabis industry; First Nations, Métis and Inuit; public health agencies and academics; a range of public sector organizations including provincial governments, police agencies and U.S. states; and a myriad of groups representing youth, criminal justice, wellness, and other interests.
The report covers most of these areas as well as home cultivation, adult access, criminal deterrence and access for medical purposes.
The nature of the exercise suggests that the deck is already stacked against the common concerns of cannabis businesses, such as excise tax and regulatory costs, barriers to legal market entry, advertising and promotion restrictions and the like. The panel notes, however, that its suggestions for reform may exceed parameters of the Act and its regulations since the federal framework encompasses legislation, policies, and programs across Canadian jurisdictions.
Because of this, the panel infers that the federal government has some overall responsibility for economic and business concerns, including those delegated to provincial governments. So, despite the report’s heavy emphasis on health and social impacts, it recognizes that keeping cannabis out of the hands of youth requires a sustainable, legal business sector. Whether the final report will make specific industry-friendly recommendations, though, is far from certain.
I was also struck by the concerns of stakeholders that I generally don’t see on the industry’s radar:
- Cannabis-related child poisonings have doubled from 2019 to approximately 2,400 in 2021, mostly from ingesting edibles. Related emergency department visits and hospitalizations are up 14 per cent over two years to 21,658 visits in 2021.
- While the age of initiating cannabis use is unchanged, several interest groups are concerned about the relationship between cannabis use and the mental health among youth and young adults.
- Although the panel understands the industry’s position on the excise tax, it’s not clear that it cares. Some health stakeholders want to maintain fees, which they see as a deterrent to further consumption and a source of research funding.
- Health respondents do not want to relax advertising and promotion requirements which they say would lead to “over-commercialization” of cannabis.
While this is just a slice of the feedback, I had the impression of a parallel universe of stakeholders who are much more concerned about perceived health risks than business viability.
Having been closely involved in tobacco control activities during the early to mid 2000s, reading the report gave me a feeling of déjà vu.
During that time tobacco taxes were progressively raised to suppress demand, in tandem with extensive public education activities. Products were concealed at point-of-sale while both smoking prevention and cessation programming was amply funded in hospitals, educational institutions and among youth groups. These initiatives were quite successful at dropping smoking rates, although the battle has now shifted to deterring minors from vaping nicotine and from using sublingual pouches.
Considering all this, I think that the best way for the cannabis industry to address the Cannabis Act review is to engage with more than an eye to beating back taxes and regulatory irritants.
It’s time to collaborate with other stakeholders to address community impacts, ensure a balanced research agenda and to explore joint opportunities. Working with others to strengthen the medical cannabis regime is one example of an area that concerns nearly all groups while offering promise for export markets.
What’s at stake is not just a well-functioning regulatory framework but the future viability of Canada’s cannabis sector.
Denis Gertler is a regulatory consultant, board member, and former government regulator.