Reimagining shared spaces across the nation
Provincial experts weigh in on the future of (and need for) public cannabis consumption spaces in an industry seeking to grow its domestic market
August 3, 2023 By Jake Hribljan
With long days and warm weather here, patios and verandas across the country are filled with Canadians looking to relax, reenergize and enjoy some good food and music. But how many wouldn’t also mind having a toke from their rosin pen or flower vaporizer, or to sip on a CBD-infused lemonade while lounging in public recreational areas?
Nearly five full years after the legalization of recreational cannabis it remains unclear if, let alone when, cannabis will get to enter the privileged arena of public consumption spaces that alcohol has enjoyed for decades.
The stats on beer and wine sales
Canadians’ tastes for social lubricants is changing. The latest report on beer and wine consumption from Statistics Canada showed that in 2021/2022, the volume of beer sold per person hit the lowest level ever recorded since we began tracking data in 1949. Meanwhile, the volume of wine sold in the same timeframe sank by 516 million litres – the largest decrease since 1949. These statistics aren’t a random outlier due to the economy, or the COVID-19 pandemic, they represent a larger macro trend.
Beer sales by volume per person are down just over 47 per cent since sales peaked in 1973, and sales by volume are down almost 25 per cent since 2009. As beer and wine sales continue to trend lower in volume, despite inflation-related rises in profits, cannabis continues to eat a larger portion of the recreational drug lunch.
Recreational cannabis sales totalled $4 billion in 2021/2022, compared to $8.1 billion in wine sales and $9.1 billion in beer for the same calendar year. This, in spite of the fact that retail cannabis sales are prohibited at venues where alcohol sales enjoy. Think of only having access to alcohol at the LCBO, and forget concerts, live sports and festivals.
In a country bent on increasing GDP through cannabis sales, I wonder with these changing trends, when and where does the public consumption of cannabis fit in?
The co-location of cannabis and alcohol in Manitoba
The nuances surrounding the sales of retail cannabis are unique from province to province, which can make the rules of regulation unclear. Lisa Hansen, communications analyst for the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba, said in a comment, “the LGCA does not prohibit licensing a cannabis retailer on the basis of location or type of venue, [but] cannabis cannot be consumed in public spaces in Manitoba. Smoking and vaping cannabis in public is prohibited under The Smoking and Vapour Products Control Act…and ingesting edibles in public is not allowed.”
Hansen continues: “another consideration is the co-location of alcohol and cannabis sales. Canadian research has shown that combined use of cannabis with liquor increases risk. For this reason, cannabis retail cannot occur in premises in Manitoba where liquor is sold.”
Canadians’ opinions on public consumption spaces for cannabis remains unclear, if not only for a lack of data. However, a 2023 opinion poll gathered by the British Columbia Ministry of Public Safety shows almost 15 per cent of the B.C. population is interested in going to a public consumption space.
As many LPs and retailers look for avenues towards achieving market capitalization figures initially promised at the start of legalization, cracking open the doors into tourism and hospitality could be the solution.
Edmonton’s We Know Training on public consumption spaces
“I think [public consumption spaces for cannabis] is an overwhelming opportunity,” says Nathan Mison of Diplomat Consulting, an Edmonton based strategic advocacy and consulting company that has partnered with We Know Training and CannSell to create the first of its kind cannabis hospitality sales training program.
“I always believe the true way that you change cannabis culture is by opening it up for more people to consume it in a way that they understood, which was through food and drink, mirroring the alcohol experience,” continues Mison.
Polling data demonstrates that 66 per cent of Canadians who have not tried cannabis would be open to the experience if it came in an ingestible format. Similarly, 27 per cent of travellers would like a cannabis experience when they travel, says Mison. “I don’t understand why the cannabis sector wouldn’t support [public consumption spaces]. I don’t understand why the tourism and hospitality sector wouldn’t support it.”
Ontario’s political resistance to public consumption
It seems as though resistance to public consumption spaces is coming largely from the political and regulatory sectors. After a failed bid in March 2023 by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce calling on the Ontario government to modernize retail cannabis regulations, such as introducing pop-up cannabis-only ingestion sites for outdoor sporting events and concerts, Premier Doug Ford stated: “I don’t like the idea of having a lounge outside and they’re smoking doobies or weed or whatever the heck they call it now.” The OCC clarified “it has never called for any action that would contravene the Ontario Smoke-Free Act.”
Provincial regulators have mostly punted the issues of public consumption spaces back to politicians. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario said in a request for comment about public consumption spaces, that “it is not appropriate for the AGCO to comment on matters relating to government policy…The possible changes of [public consumption spaces] would be a matter of federal and provincial policies and legislations.”
Compromises on co-location can be made without compromises on health
“Public health is an important consideration,” says Omar Khan, chief communication and public affairs officer at High Tide Inc., Canada’s largest cannabis retailer with over 150 retail locations nationwide.
“I think there are ways to safeguard public health, while expanding access to legal cannabis in some of these venues,” says Khan. One idea, particularly at music festivals, might be to sell cannabis in designated consumption areas where alcohol is not sold.
The United States has already begun experimenting with consumption spaces in certain states where cannabis is legal. “I believe California just recently passed a law allowing this as well,” says Khan. “I think we have a lot of examples for the government in Canada to choose from should they wish to follow in a way that is respectful of public health concerns.”
“Any product sold through our stores has already been tested by Health Canada, it’s in childproof packaging, it’s being sold in an age-restricted environment,” he says. Khan recognizes the rampant contamination of illicit products and the “strong public health argument to be made that the more we can reasonably expand access to legal cannabis, the more we will reduce the market share of the illicit market.”
As those with stakes in the regulated cannabis sector continues to focus on the problems and impacts of the illegal markets on the legal sector, it’s important for regulators and politicians to remain cognizant of the health impacts of the illicit sector and how stonewalling public consumption spaces actually emboldens the illicit market, says Mison.
“It’s pretty fascinating that one of the tenets of the Cannabis Act was the elimination of the illicit market, and the regulators whose responsibility it is to mandate and regulate the legal sector doesn’t have any comments on the public health consequences of the illicit sector…It rings a little empty,” he continues.
Five years later, Canadians continue moving forward in a post-prohibition world, yet the question still remains: will we be able to one day purchase and consume cannabis products at a major league sporting event, concert or festival?
“I absolutely believe that the opportunity to consume cannabis at an Oilers game or an Elks game in the future will happen,” says Mison. “I believe that the first step will be through food and drink; it will not be through combustion. But, you know, I think those things will come.”
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