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Opinion: We need simpler, smarter cannabis laws and regulations

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The federal government took a full nanny-state approach to cannabis regulation

A worker collects cuttings from a marijuana plant in Ontario in 2018. Photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters Files

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by Shane Morris

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Recreational cannabis became a legal industry in Canada in 2018. The approved regulatory framework was quickly cobbled together without any consultation on the actual regulatory text. The result is a regulation that is far from optimal. Realizing that the process was being rushed, Parliament wisely demanded that the government revise the Cannabis Act within three years.

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After much effort by the government to narrow the scope, the review finally starts, albeit with a delay. To lead the review, Health Canada selected Morris Rosenberg, who served as deputy minister in three different ministries during a 34-year career in the federal government.

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In its approach to cannabis regulation, the federal government went far beyond the precautionary principle and took a full nanny-state approach. While cannabis is safer than alcohol or tobacco, it currently operates under very strict legal restrictions. Canada was the first G20 country to legalize recreational cannabis – although Germany has indicated it intends to follow suit – so caution was advised. A more appropriate risk-based approach to regulation can only come in politically careful step-by-step steps. The question is how much will change, costing industry and taxpayers very slowly in lost jobs, stunted growth and missed opportunities as the youth sector grapples with bureaucracy.

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If Health Canada really wants a smart regulatory approach to cannabis, it needs to make sure the Rosenberg panel, which has yet to be appointed, fully understands how pervasive this bureaucracy is. The learning curve will be steep as the production and sale of cannabis is extremely complex. There are both federal and local manufacturing licenses, strict safety requirements, intrusive labeling regulations, required pre-launch product notifications, stringent testing requirements, and regulatory monthly inventory tracking. The regulation of cannabis is very similar to the regulation of pharma, which is very tightly controlled.

Public health must clearly be at the center of policy. But the rush to enact cannabis regulations resulted in missed public health opportunities. Although a recent scientific study by researchers at the University of Ottawa and Ottawa Hospital concluded that airway inflammation and emphysema are major risks for cannabis smokers, regulations currently allow for safer inhaled products. Don’t: Puffers, the inhaler technology used in many therapies, are not allowed. Smoking and vaping currently account for 80 percent of cannabis sales in Canada. There is no point in blocking healthy consumption options.

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Another smart regulatory option would be to allow for greater capacity in legal edibles to help cannabis consumers forego smoking or unregulated black market edibles, both of which are risky. And products with fewer health risks (eg skin creams) should be packaged more attractively and less restrictive marketing rules.

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An intelligent conversation is also needed between Health Canada and Finance Canada to reduce excise taxes on low-risk cannabis products. Firstly, excise duties on medical cannabis should be abolished. Second, the gross excise approach takes into account only THC levels, not risk levels of consumption patterns. Thus, inhaled products such as vapes face the same federal excise approach as safe orally ingested products. Using taxes to reduce the consumption of targeted risk products and associated harms in a politically sustainable way would be both smart health and tax policy.

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Legal recreational cannabis and its regulatory policy framework are new to Canada, with new value chains, new stakeholders and new evidence emerging all the time. In 2016, Morris Rosenberg wrote in Policy Options, “Complex, interconnected problems require a different style of leadership, one that is more collaborative, has humility, that listens and considers the evidence before acting.” prone to making mistakes, with a greater tolerance for risk and honesty. In addition, there is a need for leadership that encourages creative and innovative approaches.”

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Let’s hope he and his panel take that approach in their review of Canada’s Cannabis Act and regulatory framework.

Shane Morris runs a global cannabis consultancy. Their proposal to regulate based on product type would have a mixed effect on their Canadian customers.

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