Could Canada Become A Global Leader In Cannabis Policy? The International Cannabis Council Says Yes

by Gregory Frye

In 2018, Canada became just the second country in the world to legalize cannabis, and the first G20 country to do so. Since then, Canada’s nascent cannabis industry has had its share of ups and downs. The experience translates to a lot of powerful lessons learned, which Nathan Mison intends to share with the rest of the world as co-chair of the International Cannabis Council (ICC). 

Mison, now the CEO of Diplomat Consulting, has been at the forefront of legal cannabis in Canada since the beginning – serving for more than two and a half years as VP of government, media, and stakeholder relations for Fire & Flower, one of the country’s most influential cannabis operators. 

“One of the biggest challenges that we found in advocacy for the cannabis sector, from a governmental point of view, is too often when a cultivator or retailer comes in, they think we are just whining for better policies for the sector or for ourselves,” says Mison who is also co-chair of the National Cannabis Working Group with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Both The Cannabis Working Group and the ICC are off-shoots of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Collaborating with the chamber, Mison emphasizes, is a critical aspect to making progress at the policy level.

“Working together with the chamber is important for us, because we want traditional economic actors, these ancillary businesses that are supporting the cannabis sector, to come to the table with us: lawyers, accountants, construction companies, glass companies, packaging companies, and so forth,” Mison explains. “We’ve seen estimates that every dollar spent by a cultivator or retailer actually has a spinoff of 3 to 9 dollars in these ancillary sectors.”

Collaborating with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has been fruitful in other ways as well, Mison adds. It’s through the chamber’s membership with the International Chamber of Commerce, along with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), he says, that international opportunities have come into focus.

“Since legalizing in Canada, we’ve gone from just two countries to 56. And that shows the wave of cannabis legalization and opportunities for those that have subject matter expertise – experience in cultivation, in retail, or in management services – and the opportunity to help bring that experience to the world,” Mison emphasizes.

“And for the International Cannabis Council, the opportunity is for us to help steward a better, more fruitful, more sensible cannabis policy worldwide that creates opportunities for Canadian, American, Uruguayan, and Colombian businesses to take their expertise to the world.”

The other opportunity here is collaboration through the OECD and its 36 member nations, Mison continues. “We led a delegation from the Canadian chamber and from the Canadian cannabis sector to be the first people to present to the OECD health committee on cannabis legalization, its economic positives, and its positives on health opportunities.”

As the ICC continues to gain momentum and develop international relationships, the end-goal is very clear: helping to create viable cannabis markets around the globe that lead to opportunities for cannabis entrepreneurs and reasonable cannabis policy everywhere that it is going to come anyways, Mison notes.

Smoothing Out The Rocky Road To Federal Cannabis Reform

Establishing legal cannabis at a national level typically involves a lot of hurdles, delays, and knowledge gaps, which is where Mison believes an entity like the ICC can add so much value. Why reinvent the wheel when other countries have already figured out a blueprint and best practices for what works and what doesn’t?

Mison points to the U.S. as a prime example, where federal reform – when it does happen – would be very different from the state-by-state rollout of cannabis. “So some of the things we’ve learned in Canada can hopefully be taken to the U.S. as they get closer to federal legalization,” he says.

“And the U.S. is just one example. We have this great opportunity for creating pliable, economically sustainable businesses that ride a new wave of international legalization. That becomes very exciting and opportunistic for businesses that want to do it right – and an opportunity to support influencers, governments, regulators, and domestic businesses that want to get into local markets emerging in, for example Mexico, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and so on.” 

In other words, countries may have more economic incentive than they realize to embrace cannabis legalization. And if they want to avoid the common pitfalls and create a seamless, smoother regulatory system, the International Cannabis Council is prepared to help.

“We’re talking about a system that’s less punishing on the people that helped get to legalization, and a system that builds economic opportunities around good cannabis jobs while creating government revenues and displacing the illicit market. If we can help do that, we want to share those experiences.”

Cannabis Reluctance From Policymakers & Regulators

Even in Canada, one of the first movers in federal cannabis legalization, Mison and his colleagues continue to hit plenty of resistance and reluctance at the stakeholder level.

One of the most recent examples came when the Ontario government announced cannabis dispensaries in the province would have to discontinue pick-up and delivery services by July 29, 2020, services which were initially allowed as part of measures to combat COVID-19. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce estimates a loss of at least $180 million with these services discontinuing.

What’s more, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) is only allowing five dispensary openings per week, despite a waiting list of 450 cannabis businesses, many of which are already paying overhead and waiting to open.

“We are still living in a reefer madness world, primarily at the political and bureaucratic level,” Mison notes. “The citizenry has embraced legalized cannabis faster than the bureaucracy or politicians, and it’s our job as a diverse stakeholders to provide cannabis education to people who know nothing about the legal cannabis sector.”

Mison maintains with so many people and influencers holding onto tropes of the past, that coordinating an education campaign for citizens and politicians is crucial. “And unfortunately, we haven’t seen the government, the bureaucracy, or politicians undertake that education.”

With Canada being one of the movers in legal cannabis, Mison sees a fantastic and increasingly missed opportunity to leverage that position for even greater growth and stakeholder leadership. “In Canada, cannabis could be ‘our Internet,’” he says. “The economic opportunities of being a first-mover in cannabis, to lead the world development at a federal level are incredible, but unfortunately, we are getting in our own way because of the apprehension of us going first and the perceived notions of risk that it causes politically. The thing we need to do as stakeholders in the cannabis sector is to make politicians realize that the citizenry is less fearful than they are.” 

One of the greatest factors within this bureaucratic reluctance in Canada, Mison continues, lies in the fact that there is no provincial or federal ministerial mandate that talks about cannabis jobs. “We’re talking about creating good, new jobs where in Canada, cannabis production has primarily only been smaller operations. They haven’t had those $250 million grow facilities, for example. And if it was any other sector, governments would be falling all over themselves [for the opportunity] – and with cannabis, they don’t even want to talk about it.” 

In an effort to make greater progress here, Mison would like to see a greater degree of advocacy but also have the ability to gather quantifiable data which the cannabis sector can use to talk about economic impact, job creation, revenue creation – data that shows cannabis as a driver of these things. 

“And then of course we’ve seen that unfortunate downturn in the economics of cannabis when everybody thinks the market has fallen out, but in those 31 months, it’s gone from two nations on Earth to 56. We just have to understand that the opportunities have changed and pivoted.”

COVID-19 An Inflection Point For Canadian Cannabis

June 19, 2020 was the two-year mark of the passing of The Cannabis Act, which legalized cannabis in Canada for adult use. If you’d told Mison that in less than two years cannabis would be declared an essential service, he would have told you you’re crazy.

“Because of people’s reliance on cannabis as a coping mechanism, and medicinally, and the desire to hold the gains in displacing the illicit market, politicians and governments across Canada made the move to declare cannabis as an essential service,” he notes. 

“And that is due in large part to a collaborative approach to the sector and the new economic reality and the stressful world that was created by COVID.” 

Despite Ontario pulling back on delivery and pick-up services, COVID-19 has changed the conversation for cannabis by giving it a greater sense of legitimacy, Mison says.  “And as horrible as this God-awful process continues to be, it’s something the cannabis sector will look at as an inflection point in its development – at least in Canada.”

Cannabis Education More Important Than Ever

Whether it’s further legitimizing the cannabis sector within Canada or bringing those lessons-learned to other countries around the world, Mison emphasizes that education must remain a top priority.

“Cannabis as a sector is still primarily rooted on THC and CBD. We need to keep talking about the other 140 cannabinoids inside this plant; we need to talk about the terpenes and how terpenes and cannabinoids work together, or how the flavonoids actually change how the body works with the endocannabinoid system, to create different experiences,” Mison notes.

“We have to continue to do a hard, educational push among stakeholders, governments, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and the citizenry. Cannabis is much more than what most people think it is.”

What’s more, cannabis legalization has not led to all the perils that prohibitionists once feared. “Those were tropes of the past. It was ubiquitous in society already. Our mandate in the legal sector is actually to take it out of the dark and into the light, and the people who legalized cannabis need to do their part on the education side,” Mison maintains.

That includes educating people on a justifiable reason for cannabis legalization and as a result creating better opportunities for research, innovation, job creation, medical development, pain treatment, depression, and so forth, he says.

“[Governments] have abdicated their role and responsibility here. We as the sector and we as citizens need to demand that the people who take money from us do that work, and do it well,” he says. “We’ve already passed reefer madness into this brave new world, and the sector needs to force the people who legalized us to help.”

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