Nearly three full years have passed since the date that Bill-C45 – otherwise known as the Cannabis Act – became law in Canada.  The dust has had plenty of time to settle and it’s now safe to survey the infrastructure of the legal recreational cannabis industry.  Surely, with the construction of such a massive franchise, experienced cannabis industry builders and medical professionals were consulted to help lay the blueprint and framework for success…right?

“They could’ve done better,” says Kelly Beker, co-founder and executive director of The Cannabis Education Guild.  “The legacy market wasn’t included in regulation development.  By virtue of that, there was less industry know-how being considered.  The Canadian Medical Association was not included, leading to less buy-in.  Physicians are hesitant to prescribe and now we are seeing a shrinking medical market.”

In theory, the legalization of cannabis is a fantastic concept.  Cannabis sales are subject to taxes that provide governments with more capital to invest in social programs.  The black-market loses its 100 per cent market share of cannabis sales and is forced to compete with flashy retail stores in heavy-traffic locations.  Best of all, simple possession of small amounts of cannabis is no longer a federal crime for people 18 and over.  According to data from Statistics Canada, police recorded 26,042 cases of illegal cannabis possession in Canada in 2018.  The following year, the first full year of legal recreational cannabis in Canada, the number of recorded cannabis possession offences dropped to 46.

While there certainly have been many outcomes out of recreational cannabis legalization that are worthy of laud and praise, the cracks in the foundation are beginning to come to light.  The environmental impact, poor worker safety measures and lack of consumer education are glaring issues that require more than patchwork.

“The average customer has no idea what product they’re looking for and oftentimes they ask us to guide them through their purchase,” says retail budtender and Guelph-Humber graduate Shane D’Costa.  “There are heavy restrictions surrounding what we as budtenders can say to consumers about the effects that products may elicit.  We’re kind of forced to stick to marketing buzzwords like ‘calming’ or ‘centered,’ and that does little to teach consumers about the product to inform their next purchase.”

Like D’Costa, Beker also has years of experience on the front lines of the cannabis industry.  In the period leading up to legalization, Beker was working as the manager of special events at Aurora Cannabis and has since moved on to co-found and direct The Cannabis Education Guild.  She also shares D’Costa’s impression of cannabis consumer knowledge.

“The average consumer is overwhelmed by marketing buzzwords. Unfortunately, cannabis is regulated more closely to the Tobacco Act than to alcohol,” says Beker.

The ultra-tight restrictions surrounding cannabis marketing language have created an environment where brands struggle to differentiate themselves on the shelves from one another.  Cannabis brands are limited to vague language to express to consumers the effects of their products, as are the budtenders ultimately selling the product.  This foggy language clouds the judgement and understanding of consumers.  With almost three full years to contextualize what was or was not included in the government’s legal cannabis blueprint, it appears that formally educating the public on the newly legalized product and industry was not included in the strategy.

“There should be a more integrated approach to education,” says Beker.  “Students should learn about cannabis in school. Not only as a harmful drug, but for medical and industrial purposes; otherwise it will not be socially accepted as a medicine and essential crop for a more sustainable future.”

Along with the educational hurdles inherent in the process of making cannabis a part of a more sustainable future, are the environmental challenges.

At a glance, the impact of a brand-new, resource-intensive industry on the environment is obvious.  From the land used to grow cannabis outdoors, to the land developed into industrial cannabis greenhouses and processing plants, to the carbon footprint of the supply chain, to the packaging of the end product, the implications of the cannabis industry on the environment are enormous.

According to a study conducted in 2019 by the Independent Electricity System Operator, the Crown corporation responsible for operating the electricity market in Ontario, the energy used to power the cannabis industry in Ontario is expected to rise by 1250 per cent over the next five years.  With this added pressure of energy demand on the Province, renewable energy sources are increasingly important.  While Ontario’s means of electricity production are currently 93 per cent carbon-free, this high mark still falls short of another legal cannabis market’s methods of production.

“USA is leading in terms of reducing the cannabis footprint,” says Beker.  “Progress has been made in Boulder, Colorado, as growers must directly offset 100 per cent of the electricity and other fuels used in cannabis production by drawing on local renewable energy or paying into an Energy Impact Offset Fund.”

The Canadian rollout of legal cannabis featured heavily-regulated marketing and retail language, diminishing consumer knowledge.  The rollout also featured an environmental sustainability model that was less regulated than one of the only pre-existing models already in place.

“Cannabis worker’s rights is an issue that is generally overlooked,” says Beker.

Canada’s system of legal cannabis, in many ways, defies the ethos of a plant with medicinal and healing properties.  Sarah, an injured 23 year-old employee of one the top producers of cannabis in Canada, claims the health and safety protocols at the grow facility that she works at are inadequate.  She is visibly injured in her dominant hand and attributes the ligaments protruding from her palm to excessive cannabis harvesting with limited breaks for her hands to recover.  Sarah has requested that her last name and the name of the cannabis company she works for are withheld from the story.  She claims that due to the repetitive nature of the work and the profit-oriented nature of the business, employees are working in unsafe environments.

“As a result of consistently producing high numbers of plants harvested, I don’t get rotated to other duties,” says Sarah.  “The profit-driven management look at my consistently above-average output and reward me with more work.  They also assign us more plants to harvest than the number documented in their paperwork and hope we don’t notice. So, at the end of the day, we end up harvesting more plants and putting more stress on ourselves than they claim we did.”

She has filed an occupational injury claim with WSIB and says she has gotten little sympathy from her employer.

“In one of my employee reviews, I was told it was a good thing that I don’t complain about the work and that set me off,” says Sarah.  “So I made a WSIB workplace injury claim and that has been a dehumanizing process.  To hear from my employer that they, ‘believe my injuries have nothing to do with repetitive work,’ when several medical specialists have confirmed my injuries are directly related to my work, is sad.”

Sarah claims that talking about aches and pains was ordinary conversation at her grow facility.

“When one of my coworkers mentioned she was seeing a chiropractor, a bunch of my coworkers ears perked up and we all huddled around her to ask for their chiropractor’s name and if they could see us, too,” says Sarah.  “It was like when someone pulls out a pack of gum at elementary and suddenly everyone rushes over,” she adds.

While talking about their labour-induced injuries is commonplace at her grow facility, filing the type of injury claim that Sarah has, is rare.

“It’s uncommon that my coworkers are making the same workplace injury claim I am because it’s an industry with a lot of immigrant workers who don’t speak up out of fear of being replaced, so they rough through the injuries they pick up in the harvest and trim rooms,” says Sarah.  “I know so many of them are suffering the same injuries I am,” she adds.

In 2020, an advocacy group for migrant workers shared a video showing the alleged living conditions at a Double Diamond bunkhouse in Windsor-Essex.  Double Diamond is a partner of one of the largest cannabis companies in Canada, Aphria.

“Cannabis worker’s rights is an issue that is generally overlooked,” says Beker.  “Many of the medium to large licensed producers in Canada employ migrant workers from Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines. Over the past five years there have been several instances of labour exploitation of these workers who have working permits and should be treated the same as all employees.”

Beker’s work with The Cannabis Education Guild aims to establish a framework for legal cannabis in emerging markets that is more stable than the one in Canada.  Worker’s rights are an integral focal point of The Cannabis Education Guild’s efforts.

“The Cannabis Education Guild is a platform for global cannabis education and social good,” says Beker.  “CEG aims to educate professionals in legal and emerging cannabis markets, while investing in meaningful social impact to create a healthy and ethical cannabis industry. Through commercial cannabis courses, webinars and seminars, investing in education with the CEG means you are investing in social good.  Twenty per cent of net profits are donated to our much larger mission, which is to ensure the cannabis industry is built on new social impact standards, creating a slavery-free cannabis industry.”

When the Cannabis Act was passed into law, a formal review of this piece of legislation, set to take place three years from the date it was enacted, was baked into the framework.  This review is slated to begin no later than October 17th of this year, The Cannabis Education Guild will be a contributing part of the discussion.  The review has the potential to result in the easing or bolstering of certain aspects of the Cannabis Act.  Beker is vocal about the changes she’d like to see implemented.

“Integrate the Endocannabinoid System into the middle school curriculum and the curriculum for all health care professionals,” says Beker.  “Pharmacists are not yet a key part of the administration planning for cannabis as a medicine.  Bring cannabis experts to the forefront of the media, to show the strict protocols behind growing the product and the type of promising research we are starting to see at Canadian universities.”

Beker’s approach to the legal cannabis industry is different than the one currently in place, but she is able to acknowledge the progress that was made on October 17, 2018 and gives credit where she feels it is due.

“If I had to give Canada’s legal recreational cannabis rollout a letter grade, I would give it a C+,” says Beker.  “The government’s regulations in the Cannabis Act were effective in minimizing harm and ensuring public safety. It is illegal to have any advertising in front of minors, which has not allowed the companies creative reign, but has helped regulate access and restrict appealing to youth.”