A BRAVE GREEN WORLD OF RISK AND REWARD
On Oct 17, 2018, Canada changed. That’s the day we became just the second country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana and we turned heads doing it. It’s a year later. So, how’s it going, anyway?
Hipsters lit up that day, without looking over their shoulders. Geezers lined up to buy their first legal weed and kept the receipt for a souvenir. And a new industry sprang up, as if overnight.
Over the next four weeks, we’ll look at the good, the bad, and the hazy of legalized recreational cannabis throughout Atlantic Canada.
Like father, like son
– Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, 1977
– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 2018
How we got here
On his way to sweeping the region and much of the country in 2015, now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made legalizing recreational cannabis a key campaign promise.
His father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, once said pot wasn’t that big a deal and smokers shouldn’t be “hassled.” The son was set to make that view a reality.
In an April 20, 2017 interview with Bloomberg, Trudeau said legalization was not about finding a new product to tax, but about protecting young people.
“It’s right now easier for an underage Canadian to buy a joint than it is for them to buy a bottle of beer. Whatever you may think about the relative harms of marijuana versus alcohol or cigarettes, marijuana is not good for developing brains. It’s not good for our kids.”
Other goals? Keep criminals away from millions in profits and recreational users out of jail.
In this series, we will look at how that’s played out. We’ll talk with frontline participants, look at some key issues and at solutions in the making in Atlantic Canada’s budding cannabis industry.
How many of us are using cannabis?
According to Statistics Canada, there has been an increase in cannabis use since legalization, but perhaps not as much as you’d think.
From 2004 to 2017, StatsCan says 14.8 per cent of Canadians had smoked a joint at least once a year. A survey completed after legalization said 18 per cent had lit one up in the first quarter of 2019. And the younger you are, the more likely you are to try cannabis, legal or not.
How much do smokers smoke?
First three months of 2019:
Average: 27.5 grams
Age 15-24: 18.9 grams
Age 25+ 30 grams
StatsCan found those aged 18 to 24 have the highest prevalence of cannabis use, hovering between 25 and 30 per cent from 2004 to 2017. Teens aged 15 to 17 were the second most likely group from 2004 until 2015. Since then it’s been those aged 25 to 44.
Legalization didn’t change any of those numbers much. In the three months after, 33 per cent of those aged 18-24 had smoked cannabis and just over 20 per cent of those aged 25-44 had tried it.
How about Atlantic Canada?
Atlantic Canada has some of the highest rates of cannabis use in the country.
The national average ranged from 14 per cent in the first three months of legalization to 17.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2019. An average of 15.6 per cent of people who responded to the National Cannabis Survey since the start of 2018 reported having used cannabis.
Nova Scotians are more likely, with 21.3 per cent saying they lit up or used other cannabis products over that time period. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the average is 17.3 per cent; in Prince Edward Island, 15.8 per cent and in New Brunswick, 17.2 per cent.
What are the risks?
Trudeau’s comments about the drug’s negative effects on young people has some science behind it.
Health Canada says there is an increased risk of “developing mental illnesses such as psychosis or schizophrenia.” In particular, Health Canada says those who start using cannabis at a young age, those who use cannabis daily and those with a personal or family history of mental illness are at increased risk.
High-risk cannabis habits:
• Beginning cannabis use at a young age
• Daily or near daily use
• High-potency products
• Using cannabis with a mental health diagnosis
“Research shows the brain is not fully developed until around age 25. Thus, youth are especially vulnerable to the effects of cannabis on brain development and function,” according to Health Canada.
Whether you partake or have no interest in recreational cannabis, the country around you is a different place now that it is legal and regulated. It has different rules, different risks and different opportunities. Join us on our Deep Dive and see where it takes you.
Growers and government, police and pot smokers, investors and medical experts. They have all become fellow travellers on the journey Canada embarked on with the legalization of recreational cannabis less than a year ago.
KEY PLAYER EDWIN JEWELL
Grower, President of FIGR P.E.I.
YEARS IN CANNABIS: 7
GOAL: Complete expansion of FIGR on P.E.I.
Edwin Jewell knows how to grow.
His arms are tanned and freckled where his shirt sleeves are rolled up, and it is easy to imagine him guiding a green tractor around greener fields in a tourism poster.
But you’d be wrong to underestimate the lifelong farmer’s harnessed commercial ambition and attention to detail. He’s equally at ease in his office in the Charlottetown BioCommons industrial park as he is in a field of turnips. A heavy watch and tailored shirt rest comfortably in place as he recounts his path to the business of growing cannabis.
The P.E.I. grower was raised on a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Charlottetown.
After graduating from Charlottetown Rural High School, he worked alongside his father and two brothers for 18 years. Potatoes, turnips and cabbages, then hothouse flowers like geraniums and other ornamental plants.
“Basically, my whole life, I’ve done nothing but grow plants,” he said.
Jewell bought out his brothers in the greenhouse business and expanded to a full acre under glass.
But he didn’t stop there. Jewell kept looking for opportunities.
“I was in the greenhouse one day, trying to figure what other crop could I grow that would add value, that would really give us a good kick. The idea of growing cannabis came into my head.”
That was January 2013. Jewell searched online for more information and found that Health Canada was about to issue licenses to grow medicinal cannabis.
He took the plunge.
“It was hugely risky,” he said. “I told my wife if this didn’t work, we’d literally be living in a tent. We had risked everything we had to make this work.”
And doing it on P.E.I. wasn’t always easy.
Jewell was one of the few who knew the rules were changing. There was a process of education each time he approached a new player in the process. Eyebrows raised at the provincial government when he went to buy land in the industrial park, at the city when he applied for permits to build and at the insurers.
“In many cases they would chuckle to think that that’s what I was going to do.”
In the end, Jewell raised the $7 million from private investors and became the 32nd certified grower in Canada.
It helped that Health Canada issued Jewell a letter that said if they met two conditions they would issue a license. “That was called a ‘ready to build’ letter… it was something that happened early on that they discontinued.”
As a fifth-generation farmer, Jewell’s background added to his credibility.
“We’re not some investor from Toronto trying to get into the cannabis business, we’re a farm family.”
Jewell’s initial risk was to open Canada’s Island Gardens a licensed medical producer.
They established themselves in the market and fine-tuned their production.
Three years later, Jewell and his team of close to 100 staff have the process dialed in, producing consistent product.
In 2018, recreational cannabis sales quickly overtook demand from medical clients. Although Jewell now focuses almost entirely on growing for the recreational market, the company still supplies their original medical marijuana customers who were foundational to the company.
When FIGR sales took off, Jewell was able to attract a partner, Alliance One International, to help with financing and managerial expertise.
Now, FIGR is about to increase production by 30 times the current output. A new facility is certified to European good manufacturing practice (GMP) standards and is just waiting for the final approval from Health Canada before Jewell starts to move in baby plants.
“Even today, the fact that my background is in horticulture has helped in so many ways. Because at the end of the day we’re growing a crop.”
KEY PLAYER KENNETH OLIVER
Position: Owner of The Herbal Centre, St. John’s
YEARS IN CANNABIS: Several
GOAL: To open more cannabis dispensaries
Kenneth Oliver says he’s living his dream out of The Herbal Centre.
Oliver opened the store a few months after legalization.
“I’ve always had a passion for cannabis. I knew a lot about it. I didn’t feel it was fair to the public that it was hidden all this time. I went for it, and here I am.”
Right now, most of his revenue comes from the sale of cannabis. But competition means making money just off cannabis is tough.
“I think I make more off cannabis just because of the volume. We definitely make more off the accessories because we can put whatever mark-up we want on it,” said Oliver.
“It’s like a gas station. A gas station doesn’t make much money off the gas, but they make their profit off the bars, the chips, the cigarettes.”
Oliver orders directly from the various suppliers, not directly from the regulator, the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation (NLC). He says restrictions on the number of stores in the province are a bother.
“I’ve already asked them about expanding. I had an investor in place. (The NLC) said to me that they’re not giving out any more stores until they figure out where the demand is.”
KEY PLAYER BEVERLEY WARE
YEARS IN CANNABIS: 1
GOAL: Be a responsible retailer of recreational cannabis
Nova Scotians lead the country in cannabis use, so it’s no surprise Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation is Atlantic Canada’s biggest dealer, raking in $16.1 million from recreational cannabis sales from April 1 to June 30.
Beverley Ware, NSLC spokeswoman, says sales have been consistent since legalization.
“We haven’t seen...a jump in sales when there have been specific cannabis dispensaries – illicit ones – closed,” she said.
The NSLC knew it wasn’t going to shift consumers away from their usual suppliers overnight.
“Pricing is just one factor,” she said.
Product shortage has been the key issue for NSLC, like many other legal vendors.
“There are times when customers might want a particular product and a particular amount of that product and we might not be able to give them that particular strain,” she said.
Product availability will continue to be the focus of the NSLC as edibles, topicals and extracts become legal. Edibles become legal Oct. 17 but NSLC is barred by federal regulations from placing orders until Dec. 16.
“(You can’t) walk into the store in late December and be able to buy chocolates or pickup beverages that have cannabis in them. This is going to be a slower process.
KEY PLAYER BRITTNEY JONES
Canada House Wellness Group Inc.
YEARS IN CANNABIS: 3
GOAL: Increase awareness about medical cannabis use
Not everyone can name a favourite terpene, but Brittney Jones can.
“It’s a spicy terpene.”
Jones oversees the seven Canada House Clinics in Atlantic Canada and is enthusiastic about the benefits of medical cannabis use.
“Beta caryophyllne is a really, really great one for anti-spastic, muscle tension, any kind numbing agent, just like a clove would.”
The terpene is found in cloves, cinnamon and is also thought to be good for anxiety.
“That one’s personally my favourite. That one you can really notice the difference if you have a strong caryophyllene terpene profile in what you’re taking.”
Canada House offers medical document services and cannabinoid therapy education by Licensed Practical Nurses who work with a practitioner to create a treatment plan fine-tuned to each client’s specific diagnosis.
Since legalization Jones has seen some medical users drop off as cannabis is available more conveniently at the local store, but another cohort of users has grown to make up for any loss of customers—seniors.
“We’ve had so many seniors walk in the doors since legalization. It is beautiful.”
Jones feels the medical cannabis industry should be looking deeper look into terpene profiles and the other 100 cannabinoids for future developments.
By Alison Jenkins.
KEY PLAYER CHUCK THE CONSUMER
Recreational marijuana user
YEARS IN CANNABIS: 22
GOAL: Get quality product for a good price
Price and quality. That’s Chuck’s take on legal tokes in a couple of words.
Chuck, who works at a local radio station in St. John’s, would rather not see his real name in in a news story, but is happy to weigh in on what he sees as the problem with legal weed.
He’s smoked daily for years and was excited about legalization. He went to the government store but soon went back to his trusted old suppliers.
“Every once in a while, I found things that were good quality but many times I was disappointed in the quantity, quality and availability. My other sources...seemed to give me better quality and quantity and they didn’t run out.”
He isn’t alone.
A Statistics Canada report released in August showed that 42 per cent of Canadians they spoke to had recently bought weed from illegal sources. Three out of four said quality and safety were the most important considerations, and 42 per cent cited price.
Chuck said he still buys from the legal shops occasionally. “But to someone who does this every day, the stuff in the stores now isn’t there yet.”
KEY PLAYER DR. DAVID SABAPATHY
P.E.I. Deputy Chief Public Health Officer
YEARS IN CANNABIS: 1
GOAL: Improve awareness of risky cannabis use
Dr. David Sabapathy is worried. His research says too many people are high-risk cannabis users.
The Deputy Chief Public Health Officer for P.E.I. was on the team that did a detailed cannabis habits survey in 2018. Now he’s working on a targeted awareness campaign.
Aimed to measure habits before legalization, the Provincial Cannabis Committee put out the 2018 P.E.I. cannabis survey to supplement the health and safety data from national surveys so it could develop the best public health programs possible.
“Cannabis was obviously a very commonly used substance...prior to legalization. However, because it was an illicit substance, you’re not sure if you’re getting all of the information from people,” said Sabapathy.
Field work on the post-legalization stage of the survey ran until Sept. 16.
“Now in a legal situation, we have this opportunity to learn more about patterns of cannabis use in P.E.I.”
Just over 4,300 Islanders replied to the 2018 survey. It was more than the committee expected and Sabapathy is confident the data is representative of the population. About half of the survey participants had tried cannabis in their lifetime. A quarter had used it recreationally in the last 12 months. Both these numbers are on par with the rest of Canada.
However, of those who had used in the last 12 months, 25 per cent were using it daily and that raised a red flag.
Sabapathy said low-risk recreational cannabis use means one or two times a week.
More than two times per week can lead to long- and short-term health risks, he said.
This many people using it daily is a public health issue.
Young people, those who are unemployed, those with lower education levels, lower income and lower self-rated mental health are the people Sabapathy is most concerned about.
“Many people (who) currently use cannabis are engaging in high risk behaviours,” said Sabapathy.
“Those are the types of things that are concerning, and we need to help the public be better informed about cannabis use.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Average price paid to producers in Atlantic Canada in 2018.
Average price paid per gram for cannabis by consumers in Atlantic Canada in 2018.
Street price of a gram in New Glasgow, Sept. 2019.
Price of mid-quality cannabis at Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation outlet.
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NEXT FRIDAY: HEALTH, MONEY AND OTHER KEY ISSUES AROUND CANNABIS