TORONTO – Canada’s top cannabis policy bureaucrat says every time he travels outside of Canada, he is reminded anew of just what a novel enterprise this country has embarked upon.
“Canada is moving into a place that no country — other than Uruguay — has ventured to go,”
Eric Costen, director general for the federal government’s cannabis legalization and regulation branch, told a conference Thursday.
The world is watching Canada’s plan to legalize recreational marijuana, Costen said at the cannabis business conference in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Only Uruguay has made recreational marijuana legal at the federal level.
The federal government aims to have pot legal by this summer. The exact date is up in the air because senators now debating the Cannabis Act are expected to propose amendments.
Costen reminded delegates that while the government recognizes the need for a viable, competitive industry, the purpose of legalization is to improve public health by minimizing the harms of cannabis use.
For example, the government is betting that making cannabis legal will restrict its use among young people if the drug is tightly controlled and the black market squeezed out.
The government’s regulations flow from public-health objectives, said Costen, which is not the case in some other jurisdictions. Nevada, for instance, legalized marijuana with the goal of generating tax revenue, he said.
Prohibition in Canada hasn’t worked, said Costen, noting that 30 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 24, and 21 per cent of those aged 15 to 19 said they used cannabis at least once in the previous year.
Costen was the keynote speaker at the opening of the four-day Lift & Co. Cannabis Expo conference that is expected to bring 15,000 people to listen to expert panels, network and tour an exhibition hall stuffed with cannabis entrepreneurs and educators.
Costen said the federal government received valuable advice from Colorado and other U.S. states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Public education is critical, and so is gathering baseline health and safety data on everything from use patterns to poison calls related to cannabis so the government can track changes, he said.
The federal government will regulate the production of cannabis, but the provinces determine where it will be sold. Some provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, will sell cannabis through subsidiaries of provincial liquor agencies. Alberta and Manitoba, in contrast, will have privately run stores.
Some have criticized the “patchwork” of rules across the country, but the policy framework was deliberate to reflect regional differences, said Costen.
Industry representatives speaking on a panel devoted to marketing and branding at the conference were harshly critical of government restrictions they say will prevent companies from educating consumers.
“People will be going into stores and will have no idea what they are looking at,”
said Cameron Bishop from cannabis company Privateer Holdings.
The government has also proposed plain packaging with prominent warnings about addiction and other health problems associated with cannabis.
The rules would also apply to medical cannabis packaging. That is a step backward and will be confusing for patients, said Ray Gracewood, the chief commercial officer at Moncton cannabis producer OrganiGram.
Suddenly patients will find their medicine packaged like “rat poison” with warning labels, he said.