Growing flowers of cannabis intended for the medical marijuana market. After years of producing some of the world’s best pot, small-scale growers in the Kootenays say they can’t overcome the regulatory hurdles facing going legal. Black Press file photo

Growing flowers of cannabis intended for the medical marijuana market. After years of producing some of the world’s best pot, small-scale growers in the Kootenays say they can’t overcome the regulatory hurdles facing going legal. Black Press file photo

Co-op aims to help small BC cannabis producers go legit

"There is an injustice happening, these people are not going to be invited to participate."

  • Mar. 14, 2019 12:00 a.m.

A man who helped develop Canada’s cannabis policies 20 years ago is coming to the Kootenays next week to talk about how to save small pot producers from extinction.

David Hurford is visiting Nakusp and Nelson to talk about setting up a co-op that could help make more small cannabis operations legal.

“I don’t think we can understate the crisis a lot of people are going through,” says Hurford. “There are people in dire straights out there. People being forced to make very difficult choices, and the government has not created a pathway for them to become legal.”

Hurford has been touring the province on behalf of a group that wants to set up a BC Small Cannabis Producers and Processors Co-op. With funding from a venture capitalist group Grow Tech Labs, and with guidance from the coastal-based Cascadia Agricultural Co-operative Association, he’s pitching the idea that by working together, small-scale cannabis growers in B.C. can find a way to become legitimate in the big-money world of cannabis production.

BC Small Cannabis Producers and Processors Co-op

There’s concern that small-scale cannabis producers are being squeezed out by legalization. The Castlegar News spoke to a Slocan Valley small outdoor producer who said the process put in place for legalization was just too onerous for small, family-run businesses like his.

Applicants are expected to put up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with regulations, wait months or years for approvals, and even then may not have a market for their product.

SEE: Kootenay pot producers stuck in black market

Hurford says it’s a familiar story he’s heard many times over. And that’s why he’s agreed to help this initiative aimed at “accelerating” small local producers’ participation in the legal market.

“There is an injustice happening. These people are not going to be invited to participate as much as they should be. We want to do something about it,” he says.

Hurford helped develop the nation’s cannabis policy back in the 1990s, when small producers were first allowed to grow marijuana for AIDS patients and others with chronic disease. Later, as a high-ranking member of the Liberal Party, he helped get cannabis legalization part of the Liberals’ election platform.

Hurford says his policies helped build up the infrastructure of small-scale cannabis producers across the country — with 6,000 small producers in BC alone.

“I was very proud of that legacy, my work at Health Canada,” he says. “I have always had a soft spot for these small producers who are really at the heart of our cannabis sector. They have been doing this for decades and they are the best in the world at it.”

But that massive infrastructure of small-sized growers is, ironically, fundamentally threatened by legalization. Strict regulations and a high cost to get into the game threatens the livelihoods on thousands of small family growers, he says.

“I saw the importance of the small producer with the medical policy, and I very much fear now with the end of prohibition, and the way the government is rolling out the regulations, we are in danger of losing that,” he says. “The co-op is there to address exactly that.”

But the first step is finding out what growers want to see in a co-op, or if they want one at all. Hurford says from the sessions they’ve already held on the Coast, some clear messages are coming through.

“So when we go around to the meetings and we ask people ‘what do you want the co-op to do?’ the number one thing is advocacy,” he says. “They say ‘go to the government and see if you can get these rules changed.'”

But besides lobbying, Hurford says there’s much more a co-op could do. Co-ops have been around for decades, and can help producers find insurance, or get financing. They can help small producers fill out their regulatory paperwork. They can provide support for growers trying to navigate confusing local government rules and regulations. They can also help market a product, and reduce the cost of supplies for members through bulk purchasing.

So much of the meeting will be Co-ops 101, says Hurford, and listening to growers, processors and small retailers themselves. There are no memberships or fees being requested, no collection of names or personal information unless the participant wants to be included on future mailings.

They’ll take the feedback they get from people in the industry, develop the co-op bylaws and structure based on that feedback, and then come back to the communities in April with a proposal for a co-op to join.

Hurford says they’ll also begin lobbying provincial and federal officials for changes in path to legalization to make it less onerous on small producers.

6,000 growers, one licence

He notes how, out of 6,000 small producers in B.C., only 80 have filed formal applications to become legal producers under Health Canada regulations — and of those, only one licence has been approved.

“If you wanted to build a system to fail, this is it,” he says of the current process. “The government has said over and over again they want diversity, they want small producers in the game.

“But then they release these regulations in October which are hugely cumbersome and intimidating. We have consulting firms charging anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 just to help them with filling out the forms. The proof is in the pudding.”

Hurford is convinced B.C. has a lot to lose by keeping the status quo.

“The provincial government particularly has a lot at stake in maintaining BC’s status as a global cannabis producer,” he says. “These Alberta companies, these Ontario companies are very aggressive, coming in here and buying up our talent.

“California and Mexico also have good reputations for producing cannabis. And if we don’t get going we will lose our international competitive advantage and a massive global industry here.

“So from an economic development perspective and a rural economic development perspective, we think the provincial government has a lot to gain here by making sure the federal government responds properly with their regulations, and they have a lot to lose if we don’t see this happen.”

Hurford says he’s been getting good response from provincial officials he’s spoken with about the issue, and believes that through lobbying, a co-op could get a lot accomplished in getting the rules changed.

“It’s a David and Goliath struggle right now,” he says. “But if we work collectively we can flip that on its head. Especially when we have the best product in the world.”

The meeting in Nakusp is Saturday, March 16, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Nakusp Seniors Hall. It’s open to the public, but focusses on small growers, processors and retailers to start.

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