Waiting for Trudeau

| David Brown

Cannabis legalization was one of the crown jewels of Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada, arguably helping to catapult the party to a majority government in 2015. The move to legalize was a bold one, positioning Canada as a leader in an evolving global landscape at a time when public support for the issue was still relatively divided.

However, since cannabis was formally legalized in Canada in 2018, Trudeau and his federal Liberals have been almost entirely absent from the file. This is despite comments Trudeau made at a town hall meeting in March 2023 that it may be time for the government to look at how to support the sector more. 

On one hand, Trudeau and the Liberals not only avoiding the subject of cannabis legalization but also the sector in general makes sense. Supporting the legal industry isn’t as simple as supporting legalization as a concept, and many Conservative voters still hate all things weed. At the same time, those who supported the concept of legalization don’t necessarily support the current model, and public perception of the industry is informed by media coverage focussing on large, publicly traded companies with high-paid C-suite executives. 

In addition, Trudeau was always very clear that the goals of legalization were based on public health and safety, not economic growth. However, for legalization to be successful, it must be a viable private business sector. For many cannabis companies in Canada, from producers to retailers and all steps in between, being able to keep the lights on and make payroll is challenging, especially in such a highly regulated and taxed sector.

The federal excise tax alone can eat into 30% or more of a cannabis producer’s profits, something the industry has been loudly pointing out to anyone who will listen for years. 

Trudeau even said in the past that applying too much tax to cannabis will undermine the viability of the sector, driving people back to the black market, similar to what we’ve seen with tobacco. 

“The fact is that, if you tax it too much as we saw with cigarettes, you end up with driving things towards a black market, which will not keep Canadians safe — particularly young Canadians,” he said in 2015.

However, since Canada finally legalized, with the first cannabis being sold on October 17, 2018, Trudeau and the Federal Liberals have been, essentially, MIA on the file. Industry concerns about burdensome regulations and excessive levels of taxation are largely ignored. 

While the effort to establish a regulated industry was successful, an increasing number of cannabis businesses are failing, and the health of the industry itself is at stake. Rather than taking a victory lap on what was once one of the crowning policy proposals for the party, it’s now the forgotten toy at the bottom of the chest. Trudeau seems to have forgotten about cannabis almost entirely.

Nearly a year ago, Trudeau told the owner of a cannabis business in Newfoundland, who expressed many of these very concerns, that it was time for the federal government to look beyond the immediate public health and safety goals of legalization and see what the government can do “to make sure that this is a beneficial industry.

“There is a little more clarity about how the industry is evolving, and it’s easy to say ten years from now, fifty years from now, it will be great,” he continued. 

“Right now you’re in the industry, you have payroll you’re trying to make, you’re trying to support people. We want to try and get there for you as well. But this was done not because we were going to create jobs with it—although we knew that would happen. It was done out of a public health and justice approach. But hopefully we’re going to be able to catch up and be supportive of the real positive industry that it has become.”

Well, Mr Trudeau?