Health Canada releases ‘What We Heard’ summary from cannabis diversity forum

| David Brown

Health Canada has released their “What we heard” summary report from their recent two-day Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Forum held earlier this year. 

The summary, sent out to attendees and stakeholders today, provides info on the DEI Forum held January 26-27, 2022.

The goal of the forum was to share information about the federal cannabis licensing process and to provide the government with a chance to hear from Indigenous and racialized communities about the kinds of systemic barriers that exist within the cannabis industry. 

The event itself was designed based on consultation with these and other “underrepresented communities” in Canada. Both days were well attended, with limited invitations filling up fast.

The summary report notes that attendees to the two days of meetings provided suggestions for actions the government can take to improve opportunities for people from Indigenous and racialized communities to become licensed, grow their businesses, and improve their capacity to meet Health Canada’s regulatory requirements.

“The feedback received was invaluable, and we would like to thank everyone who took the time to meet with us or provided their input through the online survey,” notes the email from Health Canada. 

“While the conversations may have been difficult at times, we appreciate the open, honest, and respectful discussions and input shared throughout the forum. We also want participants to know that we heard your comments.”

Deepak Anand, a cannabis industry consultant and the Principal at ASDA Consultancy Services, says he thinks the forum and report are useful, he feels this work could have been done much earlier in the process of legalization in Canada.

“It is unfortunate that this consultation has happened after several predominantly white men have made their bags of cash and exited the industry. I hope this is not being done in order to check off some box or simply for optics sake.

“It is unfortunate that these consultations didn’t happen at the time when several other consultations around the cannabis file were occurring,” continues Anand. “Also, the reach and participation of this consultation could have been and needs to be broader in the future, but it is encouraging nonetheless to see Health Canada begin to pay attention to this important issue, albeit on a severely delayed basis. 

“I am hoping that this is the beginning of many more consultations beyond just licensing and that they are done with increased frequency and purpose and there is meaningful feedback that is adopted from these consultations going-forward.”

Jenna Valleriani, who previously worked as Director, Social Impact and Advocacy at Canopy and currently provides consulting services through Valleriani Consulting, says she thinks Health Canada’s efforts on the subject are important, but shares Anand’s concerns with how slow the regulator has been to address these issues. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing how Health Canada operationalizes the feedback from the forum, and it’s important to see the government prioritizes space for these discussions. It’s also not lost that we are almost 4 years into legalization, and it was mostly void of any further social justice and equity initiatives. 

“The feedback here underscores some of the lessons learned in the United States across their 16 or so cannabis social equity programs—namely that financial resources are one of the most critical barriers for entrepreneurs from justice-impact communities. There’s research that confirms Black and Indigenous people are underrepresented in leadership positions in cannabis, while being much more likely to have been impacted by ongoing and past harms of its prohibition. And really, only recently have we seen some Canadian cannabis companies turn their attention to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Health Canada also provided the following as a summary of the main themes that the federal regulator heard from participants:

BarrierDescription of Barrier (based on what we heard)
Data ReportingAttendees highlighted the importance of gathering demographic data on the cannabis industry and sharing it publically on a consistent basis. This data would:
· provide diversity statistics in the licensed cannabis industry;
· provide evidence regarding the prevalence of various obstacles related to applying and becoming licensed;
· provide evidence to prioritize government initiatives to improve the licensing process and support individuals experiencing barriers to becoming a cannabis licence holder;
· provide a way to monitor and measure increased diversity over time with respect to cannabis licence applications and licensed cannabis businesses. 
Dedicated ResourcesDeveloping dedicated program resources would benefit potential applicants and licence holders. For example:
·  create dedicated pathways for individuals from racialized communities to receive support during the licensing process;
·  continue building program resources for licence holders to improve their business practices and meet regulatory requirements. For example, ongoing technical learning opportunities through technical information sessions;
· building relationships with educational institutions that have agricultural and business programs related to cannabis entrepreneurship. They may either have resources to share or may be open to developing resources in collaboration with Health Canada.
Improved Communication and Increased EngagementThere is a need to address the barriers that cannabis licence applicants and licence holders face when communicating with Health Canada. Areas for improvement include:
· receiving information from Health Canada in a timely fashion (e.g. improved wait times for answers to questions);
· developing culturally competent communication to support applicants and licence holders including:
· demonstrating an ability to communicate in a culturally sensitive manner;
· increasing awareness and knowledge of sociocultural factors that have impacted the cannabis industry;
· providing guidance tools that take into consideration potential impact on certain groups.
· Members of Indigenous and racialized communities would like increased engagement opportunities with Health Canada. Targeted outreach and information sharing should inform what and how interventions encourage diversity in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis Stigma ReductionPublic education can help shift attitudes to improve cannabis culture and use within Indigenous and racialized communities. There should be continued efforts to inform the public regarding cannabis as a legal product and a legitimate industry.
Accessibility through AffordabilityWealth inequalities exclude many individuals from applying for cannabis licences. Challenges in accessing financial resources are the most significant barrier to building a diverse licensed cannabis industry. This barrier could be addressed through a variety of interventions including:
· providing access to information regarding financial resources to support becoming licensed;
· building industry networks for potential applicants and licence holders to connect and share information (for example, personal experiences about how to access financial resources to support business growth).