Many questions linger as cannabis deadline looms

In less than three months, Canadians will legally be able to consume marijuana for non-medical purposes.

In June, Parliament passed C-45, the Cannabis Act, making Canada only the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalize the drug. Several American states have “freed the weed,” so to speak; however, marijuana possession and consumption is still a federal felony south of the border.

The Justin Trudeau government has delayed implementing the legislation until Oct. 17 to give provinces and law enforcement officials time to prepare.

In the lead up to Canada’s marijuana legalization, most of the attention and concern has been on the public safety side.

This makes sense because the cannabis file has largely fallen under the purview of the federal health, public safety and justice departments.

The Cannabis Act’s regulations are fraught with detail about how cannabis will be grown in this country (individuals will be limited to four plants per household) and details about what kinds of edibles will be allowed.

However, little public attention has been spent on the production side.

This, despite the fact Trudeau has publicly guaranteed there will be enough pot available to meet demand come Oct. 17.

Last week, during their annual gathering, Canada’s agriculture ministers talked pot.

One question up for debate: should cannabis be considered an agricultural product — and, by extension, should it qualify for federal agricultural funding?

The answer to the first question (is it an agricultural product?) was a resounding yes.

The question about federal funding for the sector was more complicated.

In the end, Canada’s agriculture ministers decided the cannabis sector will be eligible for some federal dough, at the discretion of the provinces and territories. (Remember, agriculture is the joint responsibility of the provinces, territories and federal government.)

However, the cannabis industry will not be allowed to participate in Canada’s business risk management programs.

The emerging cannabis market is seen as simply too volatile at the moment. Those fluctuations, agriculture ministers worry, could lead to big payouts in the short term that officials simply haven’t budgeted for.

The marijuana industry will be allowed to apply for funding for environmental or innovation-related programming, federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay said.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will be responsible for things like varietal registrations for cannabis plants and seeds. It will also be tasked with concerns related to inputs, notably fertilizer, which may be needed to help the sector flourish.

Legalizing cannabis in Canada is a new phenomenon. Growing pains, no pun intended, should be expected.

For the agriculture industry, a number of questions remain:

  • Should cannabis growers be invited to join leading Canadian farm organizations?
  • How should input supply chains for growers be set up to ensure there is enough seed, fertilizer and other inputs in place?
  • Are there new pieces of equipment, like special greenhouses or labour-saving harvesting tools, that need to be developed?
  • What kind of research is needed?
  • Should the edibles industry be considered a type of food processing and be subjected to Canada’s existing food safety laws?
  • Should cannabis producers be subjected to the same zoning rules as other production facilities, including meat packing plants, because of odour concerns?

Many analysts expect the economic potential of the cannabis industry to be huge.

A report released by Deloitte in June estimated the legal cannabis industry could generate up to $4.35 billion in sales, with Canadians expected to spend up to $7.17 billion on cannabis products in 2019.

Consumption, the study estimated, could grow by as much as 35 percent.

Meanwhile, rough figures from Statistics Canada show Canadians consumed nearly 700 tonnes of cannabis in 2015, with a total value ranging between $5 and $6.2 billion.

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