Once a prominent topic, cannabis has taken a back seat in this year’s federal election

| David Brown

As Canada prepares for an election on September 20, politicians’ focus is not on cannabis, a stark contrast from the federal election in 2015, and to a lesser degree in 2019. 

While Trudeau’s Liberals benefitted from a wave of support with their call to legalize in 2015, and the Conservatives used the opportunity to attack the proposal as reckless, subsequent federal elections have mostly ignored the issue, none more so than this current 2021 election cycle. 

While the industry as a whole has numerous concerns they would like to see addressed—from the high levels of taxation, to burdensome regulations at all levels of government—a new, fragmented industry with sometimes competing interests hasn’t been able to make these issues matter to Canadians and politicians. 

Omar Khan, the Senior Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at High Tide Inc, a cannabis retailer with several stores across Canada, says it ultimately comes down to those who benefit from the issues making sure politicians gravitate towards them.

“It’s rare for politicians and political parties to build a parade around an issue, but they are apt to jump on to a bandwagon once the parade has been built,” explains Khan. “It’s incumbent upon industry, activists, and allies of the industry to start building that parade. We are the ones who have to start talking about not only the benefits of legalization, but also the challenges and pitfalls that lie ahead from a regulatory perspective. As a collective we need to be a little more aggressive on that front between now and the next election so that hopefully we can see some movement.”

Khan, who in addition to his work within the cannabis industry, has nearly twenty years of experience working on issues of public policy, public affairs advocacy, and communications, says one factor is that the issue is especially sticky in certain key suburban ridings in British Columbia and Ontario. 

Parties this election cycle are focussed on other more immediate concerns, and the subject of cannabis remains a sticky issue in Canadian politics. 

“I think all (the major parties) are looking at short term political factors and they’ve come to a determination that they feel it’s probably not worth the risk to highlight any particular progressive stance on cannabis or the cannabis industry. I think the main reason for that is that stigma remains quite high in a lot of rural communities, but more important from an electoral perspective, the suburban belts around the greater Toronto area and the metro Vancouver area. A lot of ridings in those areas tend to have high multicultural community populations and particularly those of Asian descent. And for a whole host of reasons, some religious, come cultural, the level of stigma in the Asian multicultural communities remains quite high. I think they’ve made an electoral decision that shining a light on cannabis and the cannabis industry in the context of an election campaign isn’t to any of their advantages.” 

The only major party to mention cannabis in their platform at all is the NDP who are continuing to call for full record expungement beyond the cannabis pardon legislation the Liberals passed in 2019. While the Liberals’ bill allowed for pardons for low level cannabis charges, the NDP called for further regulatory change that would automatically wipe such records clean. The process behind such a proposal requires significant logistical changes to Canada’s criminal record keeping system, although a program that would do just that has been tabled in the Senate twice now. The NDP also presented a Primate Members Bill in late 2018, C-415, that would have called for a process where expungement requests were reviewed by the Parole Board of Canada.

The Liberals, despite garnering significant goodwill in 2015 with their promise to legalize, have remained relatively quiet about it since then. The NDP have only periodically raised the issue to halfheartedly take pot-shots at legalization for being too strict, while the Conservatives have in the past said they won’t seek to repeal the legislation but would like to make changes such as ending the medical cannabis program and the four plant allowance for all Canadians, among other concerns. 

Issues such as reducing regulatory burden, or lower taxes, which traditionally have been areas where the Conservatives have found political support, are still not being actively championed by the Conservative Party, likely due to the kinds of stigma, especially in rural and suburban ridings that Khan referred to. The Conservatives have in the past, however, criticized the Liberals for taxing medical cannabis, as have the NDP.

Gerald Butts, former Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tweeted recently that he felt the legislation didn’t go far enough, calling it a “nanny state”. The PPC has publicly disgraced cannabis figure Marc Emery running under their banner, although cannabis has not been a major concern for this party, either. 

George Smitherman, the President and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada, representing some of the largest cannabis producers in the country, says he thinks it’s actually a positive sign that cannabis and legalization is no longer a major issue, because it means the process of legalization has been working smoothly so far. 

“I take the fact that cannabis is not front and centre in the election is a reflection on the fact that from a social standpoint, it’s been so successful,” says Smitherman. “So even though I wish there was more upside and potential, and there are a lot of challenges for our industry, I think we should take stock of the fact that we’ve been a non-issue in a sense, is a very positive reflection on the public and social experiment that is legalization. 

“Here we are at the three year mark of the election and the broad shrug of the shoulders of the Canadian public towards the social experiment is an important two thumbs up.”

Still, like Kahn, Smitherman says he thinks industry needs to be more proactive in their efforts if they do want their interests to be taken seriously by politicians. Smitherman is also a former Ontario Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Energy and Infrastructure.

“We have to build the relationships,” he says. “The untapped strategic strength of the cannabis industry in Canada is that we have hundreds of license holders spread all across Canada. We have to unleash the relationship potential of our licence holders to create an audience in Ottawa beyond Health Canada. We need to talk beyond Health Canada to all politicians, all parties at all levels, and build those relationships to get their attention.”