Canada: Quebec wants to ban home-grow. Is It the will of the voters or vested interests?

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The government of Quebec is forging ahead in its showdown with Ottawa over homegrown cannabis. On May 9, Quebec’s Liberal house leader and Minister Responsible for Canadian Relations Jean-Marc Fournier published an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette railing against the federal government’s refusal to allow Quebec to ban cannabis home-growing.

“The Canadian minister of Justice is mistaken in her claim that, under the Canadian federal regime, the federal Parliament, acting alone, can create a ‘national regime for the legalization of cannabis,’” Fournier wrote. “By seeking to undermine Quebec’s choice on the issue of home-grown cannabis, the federal government shows how little consideration and recognition it grants to the wishes of a provincial partner, a partner essential to the fulfilment of its election promise, and one who has shown its collaboration in the management of an issue that arose solely from a federal government intention.”

This conflict has all the appearances of a classic battle between Quebec and Ottawa, the kind Canadians have seen many times before. Ottawa wants to do things one way, Quebec wants to chart its own course, and the provincial and federal government will no doubt invest tens or hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in figuring out who is ultimately in the legal right.

The only missing piece is the Quebec public. Unlike in other Quebec/Ottawa showdowns, this time around a significant proportion of Quebeckers don’t support their government’s position.

Who’s Driving the Protest Against Home Grow?

Five days prior to Fournier’s op-ed, TVA revealed that an overwhelming majority—84.2%—of Quebeckers who participated in last year’s provincial public consultations on cannabis want to be allowed to grow cannabis at home. Quebec residents who completed questionnaires online, meanwhile, voted 60.8% for allowing home cultivation, and 35.4% against.

The Ministry of Health and Social Services document containing this information, “L’encadrement du cannabis au Québec – Rapport des consultations publiques,” has been online since November 13, 2017. Six days after it was published, Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois told the audience of popular talk-show Tout Le Monde en Parle, “the population demanded […] what they told us is, ‘No, what we prefer is for you to start out in a more rigorous manner and oversee it more severely.”

She then offered what has since become a famous explanation for banning home growing, explaining that she lives in the country and has eight grandchildren who visit on the weekend. “If the oldest, who’s six, goes over to the neighbours’ side, and inadvertently gets into it and consumes a bit [of cannabis],” she explained, “maybe eating it[…] It’s not good to have near a house where there are children, near a park.” She added that she learned during the consultation that “four good pot plants, with two people at home, that will get two people stoned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And you know what? There’ll be some left over.”

Charlebois repeated her opposition to home-growing in December 4 interview with Vice, saying “The population asked us to be cautious and that’s what we’re doing. We must not normalize cannabis culture. Teenagers will find themselves in houses where people grow cannabis. The application of the federal law is not evident. Quebec municipalities have told us they don’t have the means to apply the federal law on home-growing.”

On February 8, she said again, “What I’ll tell you is the majority of people, what they ask me for, is zero plants in the home.”

After TVA revealed last week that the Minister’s own numbers show a large majority of those who participated in the public consultations she organized are in favour of home growing, Charlebois responded simply, “If you knew the number of people who telephoned me […] who telephoned my riding office, and who wrote to me to tell me I’d made the right decision.”

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The Silent Majority

There was one majority of respondents who were opposed to home cultivation: organizations. The public consultation invited both individuals and representatives of a variety of bodies from across Quebec to have their say about how they wanted to see legalization occur. Of the organizations who submitted briefs, 68.2% were opposed to home cannabis cultivation.

“When you consider that 84% of Quebeckers were in favour—it’s ridiculous,” says Montreal Compassion Club founder Marc-Boris St-Maurice. “The Quebec government is looking for whatever justification for a home-growing ban they can find, and if they can find organizations against it, they’re more than happy to call on those.”

TVA described the organizations represented in the public consultations as “cities and landlords,” but in fact there were an enormous variety of groups who submitted briefs to the consultation—and cities and landlords were among those least represented.

“L’encadrement du cannabis au Québec – Rapport des consultations publiques” lists the 127 organizations who submitted briefs during the regional events of the public consultation. Classified by category, they reveal a list of groups headed by for-profit cannabis producers and dispensaries (16%), health and social-service organizations (15%), substance-abuse organizations (12%), and business associations (9%).

Contrary to media insistence that organizational opposition to home growing was led by landlords, the three  landlords’ associations only constituted 2% of the total organizational respondents (matched by 3 gardening/farming companies).

Only four oranizations could be loosely grouped together under the header of socio-medical cannabis-advocacy bodies—Accès national au cannabis medical, CACTUS, Centre Compassion de Montréal, and Coopérative de Solidarité Cann-Amis, comprising 3% of the organizational total. They were joined by six businesses (5%) that sold cannabis-related products and services but did not aspire to sell cannabis itself. These are most likely groups that supported home-growing but would neither profit nor lose profit as a result of it.

Health and Social Service organizations (15%), substance-abuse bodies (12%), mental health groups (6%), and schools (6%) may well have opposed home growing out of concern for those whom cannabis presents a potential for harm (principally children, those suffering mental illness, and those confronting substance abuse). If indeed they did, whether or not one agrees with that position, the public can take comfort that these organizations’ opposition to home growing was determined by consideration of what they believe would best serve the public good.

The 21 for-profit cannabis producers and dispensaries—including leading national producers Aurora, Hydropothecary, and Canopy Growth (through its subsidiary Vert Cannabis)—represented a plurality of respondents. They were joined by 11 business organizations (9%), including the Canadian Federation for Enterprise, the Federation of Canadian Independent Businesses, the Federation of Quebec Chambers of Commerce, and the Union of Agricultural Producers.

Together, business federations and for-profit producers/dispensaries represented a full 25% of the organizations submitting briefs to the public consultation. This bloc of organizations has a variety of overlapping vested interests that would benefit from keeping home cultivation illegal.

Interestingly, the “Rapport des consultations publiques” only breaks down organizations into categories in considering the responses to whether Quebec should allow private retailers to sell cannabis versus retain a state monopoly as the province has on liquor. In that case, 71.4% of “Organizations associated with the cannabis industry or [otherwise] for-profit” wanted private cannabis retail, versus 60.2% of citizens, 86.7% of “Health, Social Services, Education, and Security” bodies, and 100% of “Other organizations” who wanted cannabis to remain sold through state bodies. The document does not show the individual percentages of opposition to home growing from cannabis-industry and for-profit organizations as distinct from health and social services bodies.

Marc-Boris St-Maurice condemns what he calls “the corporatization of cannabis in Canada,” noting that while the underground economy has been painted as being run by bad people, everyone he has encountered in the cannabis black market respects one another, gets along, and is happy to coexist.

“But corporate bigwigs, they want to squeeze out the little guy, cut out the middleman, shave a few dollars off here and there,” he says. “Their mentality is that competition is a foe to be eliminated. That is so not what pot is all about.”

He suspects that corporate cannabis producers opposing home-cultivation as a threat to their profit margin are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot by making enemies of consumers.

“Even if people do grow three or four plants at home, a lot of people don’t really know what they’re doing,” says St-Maurice. “It’s like if you make beer at home, you don’t suddenly stop buying beer. You make small batches for yourself but you end up still purchasing it. Companies that feel it’s a threat, well—are they interested in what’s good for marijuana consumers, or just in protecting their bottom line? People are eventually going to need to buy clones and other source materials. There could be a market for that.”

It isn’t clear what each organization supported in the brief it submitted. But the motivations of those submitting briefs were not all aligned. When Lucie Charlebois speaks of a majority who opposed home growing, she very well mean a majority of a group of organizations stacked with companies who stand to make a profit from keeping Quebeckers from growing their own, whose interest is financial, rather than public.

Jean-Marc Fournier acknowledged outrage on seeing the public opinion passed over in favour of that of organizations when he wrote, “One could certainly restate the arguments underpinning Quebec’s decisions concerning the regulation of cannabis.” For him, it appears this isn’t about the question of cannabis at all, but rather the matter of keeping Ottawa out of Quebec’s legal jurisdiction. But for the rest of Quebeckers, it is strange to see Mr. Fournier fighting so valiantly to protect the right of the Quebec government to contradict the wishes of a clear majority of its citizens.

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