VANCOUVER — Jessika Villano sells a potent array of dried cannabis, oils, salves and even bud-infused bath bombs at Buddha Barn Medicinal Society — all grown and processed by small-scale British Columbia producers.
Villano doesn't want that to change when marijuana is legalized later this year, and she's among the proponents of local craft cannabis who are pushing the federal and provincial governments to ensure its survival.
"I believe in our sector," Villano said. "Our elected representatives need to take immediate steps to protect it or face the consequences of letting B.C. craft cannabis collapse."
Five groups representing small pot growers and sellers delivered an open letter on Friday to federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her B.C. counterpart David Eby. The letter urges immediate action from both ministers ahead of legalization.
The federal government has signalled it will make room for craft cannabis in the recreational industry. It has proposed a micro-cultivation licence for growers whose crops cover less than 200 square metres, but it hasn't created an application process.
The groups want the government to urgently establish a process so they can obtain licences and bid for provincial contracts to supply legal cannabis. Currently, large companies that already hold Health Canada licences to grow medical cannabis are exclusively signing those contracts, the groups say.
"It's like starting the race 10 seconds late," said Roxanne Judson, a small-scale grower and a member of the Ethical Cannabis Producers Alliance, one of the groups behind the letter.
"The smaller producers that have been the backbone of this market for decades aren't even allowed to apply yet."
The groups also say the proposed space limit on micro-cultivation is too small and should be increased to 500 to 1,000 square metres. They also want packaging and labelling restrictions to be loosened so craft cannabis can differentiate itself from mass-produced marijuana.
The smaller producers that have been the backbone of this market for decades aren't even allowed to apply yet.Roxanne Judson
Under draft federal regulations, pot packages must be opaque and only display one brand element beyond the product's name.
"They've made it so it's really difficult for craft cannabis producers to distinguish themselves as being local or organic or sustainably grown, or whatever their particular advantage might be," said Ian Dawkins of the Cannabis Commerce Association of Canada, which also signed the letter.
The federal Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Number of changes
The letter calls on B.C. to make a number of changes to its framework, including ditching a plan that would require producers to send cannabis to a provincially run warehouse for storage before it is shipped to stores. Cannabis begins to degrade in quality quickly if it isn't stored properly, said Dawkins.
The groups are also asking the province to allow marijuana grow-ops on B.C.'s agricultural land reserve. Some municipalities have called for cannabis to be outlawed on reserve lands.
Finally, the groups want craft cannabis farmers to be permitted to sell their products on site, the same as craft breweries and wineries. That would help drive marijuana tourism by encouraging patrons to visit pot-growing regions, just as they visit the Okanagan for wine tours, the letter says.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said B.C. was the only province that advocated for small-scale producers to be included in federal regulations.
"If it wasn't for British Columbia, they wouldn't have been taken into account," he said. "I pushed very hard for that."
Industry employs thousands
Farnworth said he wouldn't rule out allowing cannabis farmers to sell their products on site in the future and he was weighing both sides of the agricultural land reserve debate carefully. As for the centralized warehouse, he said that model was in line with other provinces and would not be changed.
Many small producers hold licences under the medical marijuana regime that only allow them to grow for themselves or for specific patients. Selling to dispensaries is illegal, but this supply chain has become a part of the "grey market" in Vancouver and Victoria after the cities granted business licences to pot shops.
The craft cannabis industry employs thousands of people in B.C. and has revitalized rural communities where mining or forestry jobs have dried up, said Dawkins. B.C. is behind other provinces in creating regulations and needs to champion the industry the same way Alberta champions oil, he added.
"We're about to go off the cliff here," he said. "This is a B.C. file that needs a made-in-B.C. solution and we need some local advocacy."
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