Highs and lows of 2 years of legal cannabis in Canada

Published on October 15, 2020
bud drop
Photo by Jesse Milns/Leafly

The best part of building something from scratch is the freedom of working from a clean slate. The worst is the mistakes you don’t know how to avoid.

That’s a little how Canadians talk about the first two years since the government began regulating recreational cannabis. To commemorate the second 10/17 post-legalization, cannabis influencers look back on the highs and lows of legal weed in Canada, including what’s worth celebrating and what keeps them fighting for change.

Happiness is a homegrown spliff

Empowering people to grow their own cannabis has been inspiring to witness for Vancouver Island cannabis advisor and farmers’ advocate Kelly Coulter. “Cannabis is a conduit to bigger conversations, such as self-reliance and sustainability,” she says. “Seeing the joy of homegrowers sharing their experiences in a spirit of collaboration and passion has been greatly rewarding. We fought hard for this.” 

Business is booming

alberta roadside spiritleaf
Jesse Milns/Leafly

Cannabis is delivering sales in the billions. “Many analysts are predicting that total sales for 2020 will net out at around $3 billion, resulting in significant revenue for the federal and provincial governments at a time when deficit spending is soaring across the board,” says Omar Yar Khan, national cannabis sector lead at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Retail therapy

As frontline educators in all things cannabis, budtenders have risen to the challenge.

“It’s been a highlight to learn from the great budtenders and retailers who are making our industry tick,” says Tyler Rumi, CEO and co-founder of Good Buds. “They’re amazing to work with and are our number-one portal to product development and understanding what Canadians want.” 

A taste of edibles

Photo by Jesse Milns/Leafly

The ingestible cannabis market may only be celebrating its first anniversary, but the Canadian appetite is strong.

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“Forty-eight percent of Canadians who have never tried cannabis say they’re interested in ingestible cannabis,” says Haneen Davies, CCO at Houseplant. “These new formats are going to bring entirely new consumers into the category.” 

Canadian chill

Canadians have taken to legal cannabis with a characteristically laidback attitude.

“It really seems that legalization has permeated the consciousness of our society,” says Kirsten Gauthier, chief marketing officer at 48North. “Stigma around the plant has eroded, quality has improved, and people’s imaginations about the possibilities of the plant have expanded.”   

Reefer madness…averted

The boogeyman scenarios floated to argue against legalization never really materialized.

“There was so much fear and so much speculation around issues like lifetime bans at the U.S. border, increases in impaired driving, and a lack of supply for medical patients, not to mention the concern about the impact of legalization on youth,” says Ashleigh Brown, founder, and CEO of SheCann Cannabis Inc. “None of those scenarios has emerged as a major societal issue in Canada. It’s ‘cannabis as usual’ for most of us.”

Centring Indigenous sovereignty

(Jesse Milns for Leafly)

In Indigenous communities on reserves, legalization has taken on a broader scope. “There is a mix of practice on reserves between continued cannabis prohibition, some form of government compliance, and full-on sovereign embrace of the industry,” says Jacob Taylor, managing partner at the development firm Pontiac Group.

That lack of diversity

That white men have leapfrogged to the top of the pyramid even within this brand-new industry once more underlines just how persistent the patriarchy is in the nation’s social structures.

“We need to encourage an inclusive and diverse industry,” says Abi Roach, the founder of Toronto’s HotBox Lounge & Shop and now senior product manager at the Ontario Cannabis Store. “We want an industry that looks like its diverse customers. People of different genders, ethnicities, sizes, and lived stories.” 

Justice for all

As new players reap the rewards of the newly legal market, many feel those prosecuted under the previous system deserve vindication. “Amnesty is still needed to erase conviction or seal records, even if pardoned,” says Trang Trinh, CEO at TREC Brands, which donates 10% of gross profits to Cannabis Amnesty. “This will help the real trailblazers in the sector integrate back into society.” 

Packaging that’s anything but green

canna cabana
Photo by Jesse Milns

The cumbersome packaging that the government requires for cannabis is antithetical to the values of many of its producers and consumers. “I’d love to see the packaging requirements loosened under the Cannabis Act to allow for more brand differentiation and sustainable packaging options,” says Alex Rumi, CSO and co-founder of Good Buds. “Health Canada’s current regulations force us to use these massive packages that create a lot of single-use plastic waste.”  

Advantage: illegal cannabis

Photo by Jesse Milns/Leafly

The illicit market still offers better pricing and quality than government-regulated alternatives. “Recent data from Statistics Canada shows that at least 40% of cannabis consumers are still regularly accessing product from the illicit market,” says Omar Yar Khan of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “They won’t migrate to the legal market unless the consumer experience and price points can be improved.”

Ad it up

Marketing limitations are holding the industry’s growth back. “We absolutely still have a long way to go in making the marketing and sale of cannabis in Canada simpler and more straightforward to move both supply and demand away from the illicit market,” says Haneen Davies, CCO at Houseplant. 

“The industry is still treated like a novelty or second class in a lot of ways through such things as very restrictive advertising,” says James Jesty, president of Friendly Stranger Holdings Corp. “I hope that these restrictions are lifted in the near future.” 

Let the indies in

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Not nearly enough micro-licenses have been issued. “A full reset of the micro-regulations is required sooner than later,” says David Hurford, secretary of BC Craft Farmers Co-Op. “In the first two years of legalization, only 25 BC craft farmers have been approved.  For the policy to be successful, and to meet consumer demand for fresh, local cannabis products, thousands are needed.”

And then there’s the medical system

Even as the recreational market has made giant strides in recent years, the medical market still faces its own persistent issues.

“We are fortunate to have a separate stream for patients in this country, but little to no insurance coverage, substantial cost, several taxes, and a lack of physicians willing to authorize and supervise patients means that millions of Canadians are self-medicating, or going without altogether,” says Ashleigh Brown, founder and CEO of SheCann Cannabis Inc. “There is a scheduled review of the medical system of access to cannabis in 2023, so these next few years are critical. Progress is a process—we owe it to each other to make sure medical cannabis isn’t a casualty of legalization.”

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Ryan Porter
Ryan Porter
Ryan Porter has spent 15 years as a Toronto-based journalist with bylines in the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, InStyle, and Maclean’s. Recent work and photos of weird signs on Twitter at @MrRyanPorter
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