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Editorial: Green tape

Hipsters and hippies across the country are set to celebrate cannabis legalization this coming Canada Day.

The Trudeau government is on track for legalizing this recreational drug by that date, one of the highest-profile promises made during the last election campaign.

That’s likely a good thing. While any recreational drug, alcohol included, is a problem in excess, there’s evidence this prohibition causes more social harm than the drug itself. It’s much like the earlier alcohol prohibition where otherwise law-abiding buyers were forced by regulation to buy from organized criminals, funding and empowering them.

One group that’s less celebratory and more frustrated are the nation’s industrial hemp growers. They’ve been labouring, since the crop was legalized in the 1990s, under the heavy weight of government regulation and oversight. The intention was to ensure that nobody was using the legal plant as convincing cover to produce fields of the illegal ones.

At the time that approach made more sense, even if it did occasionally seem a bit heavy handed and out of sync with the realities of the agriculture industry.

Health Canada oversaw the program and those regulators were used to working on a calendar year, to cite just one example, while agriculture runs on the crop year. That meant farmers would have to apply for permit extensions by Jan. 1 just to keep the crop they’d finished harvesting down on the farm, among other annoyances.

Over time that has changed, to Health Canada’s credit, as officials have learned a bit more about the industry they suddenly found themselves regulating. It’s still not entirely in sync with the rest of the sector, but a least farmers now have until March 31 to renew their licences.

But they’re still required to meet some pretty stiff rules. A current criminal record check, for example, to prove no history of conviction for illicit drugs. As well, the rules about storing and selling the crop are very strict.

Growers are also required to provide, prior to planting, GPS co-ordinates for field corners. For irregularly shaped fields, that can be a real challenge, as can providing them ahead of time when Mother Nature doesn’t co-operate in the spring. Also forget about borrowing a little bin space from a neighbour.

The paperwork is daunting. The application form to become a grower, not including some supporting documentation, runs 11 pages. A renewal application is pared down a bit, to just eight pages.

Then there’s the hefty limitations on what producers can and can’t sell. Under the current laws, farmers growing industrial hemp are only allowed to harvest the seed and the stalk of the plant. The flowers and leaves must be left in the field to decay.

Hemp growers insist that’s becoming a very expensive bureaucratic bungle, because despite the fact these products look a whole lot like the illegal products, they contain only trace psychotropic ingredients. Call it the near beer of the marijuana world.

Expensive they say because it turns out those leaves and buds may contain some valuable compounds. The one of most interest is cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD. It’s being touted for benefits as varied as arthritis relief to epilepsy treatment and relief of some psychological conditions.

It should be noted that much of this research is still in its early days and may still come to nothing, though reputable researchers are finding some hopeful signs. But right now there is a market for these products, and it could grow in the future. Farmers should be able to capitalize on that, and burdensome outdated regulations shouldn’t prevent them.

The question that must be asked, in view of the pending legalization and the inevitable regulation and taxation of recreational marijuana, is whether this level of regulation makes any kind of sense anymore.

Fortunately Health Canada has recently given growers an opportunity to raise this very topic, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. On Nov. 21 the agency announced a round of public consultations on cannabis regulation, with an eye to being prepared for the looming legalization deadline.

Until Jan. 20, 2018, Canadians have an opportunity to have their say via an online consultation. Health Canada has periodically revisited and consulted on its industrial hemp policies, but the most recent was in 2013, before cannabis legalization was a serious consideration.

With such profound implications on the horizon, hemp growers and processors should use this opportunity to make their voices heard. The government should listen.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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