Pubdate: Mon, 28 Aug 2017
Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network
Author: Bill Kaufmann
Page: A4


Members of producers' co-op hope to safeguard their iconic industry

A British Columbia region's legacy of Vietnam War draft dodgers and
illicit cannabis gardens wants a place at the legalized recreational
marijuana table.

Fears that corporate cannabis producers could accomplish what law
enforcement never could - uproot the Kootenay region's famed marijuana
cultivators - has local producers mobilizing to protect what they call
a longtime bedrock of their local economy.

"There's been a lot of grey and black-market cannabis growers here for
a long time and we don't want to lose that business," said Todd Veri,
president of the fledgling Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-op.

"It's been driving our economy for four decades."

Weed in the Kootenays has long been an economic lynchpin worth
billions of dollars, supplemented by a tourism trade heavily bolstered
by southern Albertans attracted by its beaches, pristine lakes and
old-growth forests.

What Veri, who was drawn to the southern B.C. interior 20 years ago by
the lure of green gold, is seeking is federal legal sanction to
produce cannabis under an outdoor co-operative model.

It would start with a dozen one-hectare farms feeding a central
processing facility, an operation that could initially generate $20
million in revenue and 300 to 400 seasonal jobs, he said.

With Ottawa and the provinces labouring to hash out regulatory and
legal details to meet next summer's legalization deadline, Veri says
now is the time for local growers to get their feet in the door.

"We're not sure the regulations are going to allow some of the nuances
involved . . . we want to make sure we don't get overlooked," he said.

The region's pot pedigree is a rich one, said Kaslo resident Veri, who
quickly discovered the area's reputation wasn't smoke and mirrors when
he first arrived in 1997.

In one cluster of 28 homes near where he lived, occupants of 22 of
them were involved in cultivating marijuana, he said.

"These were professional people, dentists, a school principal,
lawyers," said Veri, adding he hasn't grown the plant for 17 years.

"People here have been growing in Crown forests for 40 years . . .
it's safe to say it's everywhere."

It's believed 40 per cent of Canada's marijuana is grown in the
region, a big chunk of a B.C. cash crop worth as much as $7 billion.

The reputation of Kootenay bud grew lucratively to attract the
attentions of the massive California market, with the changing of
American greenbacks to Canadian currency becoming a staple of local
commerce, said Veri.

Today, the free-spirited town of Nelson is home to 10,500 people and
six marijuana dispensaries, supplied partly by local growers whose
wares are laid out in display cases.

By contrast, Calgary, with a population of nearly 1.3 million, has
none selling cannabis on site.

Last May, Veri and his cohorts hosted a meeting near Nelson to gauge
investor-producer interest and were swamped by the response.

"A hundred people showed up from two hours north and two hours south,
we had to weed them out to find the 12 farmers," he said.

"I had to do interviews to select a board of directors; I had to take
resumes, there were so many people coming forward."

That co-op concept would be an ideal way to preserve both existing
cannabis businesses and the region's marijuana legacy, said Frederick
Pels, president of the Green Room, a dispensary in Nelson.

"What we're talking about is inclusion, and we're facing the same
issues as growers," said Pels.

The last thing Pels wants to see is a government-operated distribution
system that would disrupt the network now enjoyed by his shop and its
4,000 Nelson-area clients who can choose from 20 to 50 strains of bud,
hashish, distillates and butters.

A popular variety recently has been a hybrid dubbed Mayor Maglio - the
namesake of a Nelson mayor of the 1960s and 70s.

"People loved the name and product," said Pels, adding another
revered, locally produced bud goes by the handle Grape God, an indica
hybrid that one dispensary website describes as offering "a sweet
grape aroma" and "long-lasting euphoria."

It's likely some of that strain's local producers, who supply 30 to 40
per cent of the Green Room's bud, would be part of the new
co-operative, he said.

And that's just as it should be after recreational legalization kicks
in, said Pels.

"I'd like to see everything regulated, a thriving industry instead of
a black-market one - and the heritage of it has to be acknowledged,"
he said.

Another factor in that regional loyalty, said Pels, is quality that
years of strain development ensures.

"The Kootenays have been a source of cannabis for a very long time and
the quality speaks for how long a particular grower has been at it,"
he said.

"These growers, they don't make that much money and they've been doing
it for generations."

Locally hobbling any cartel in what's now dubbed "big pot" -
industrial-size growers who are nurturing a major presence in Alberta
- - is definitely top of mind among many in the Kootenays, said Philip
McMillan, facilities director on the Nelson Compassion Club dispensary.

"There's definitely a movement in B.C. to keep the craft side of
things," said McMillan, who adds he only vaguely knows a roster of
regular Kootenay suppliers and wants to keep it that way for legal

But while he applauds the Kootenay co-operative concept, he's not as
concerned about the fate of the region's small, and sometimes illicit,

"Even with a heavily regulated industry and one monopolized by
corporations, there'll be lots of room for a black market," said McMillan.

"Be it recreational or medicinal, it can be spread

McMillan calls himself a pioneer of the Nelson legitimate cannabis
scene, having set up the compassionate club 18 years ago after
becoming fed up by "having to send 80-year-olds to the bus stop to buy
weed from teenagers."

Chris Campbell, who operates Nelson's Potorium dispensary, said she's
hopeful regulation left to the provinces would be sensitive to current
business realities.

"My hope would be consideration to allow dispensaries to license
producers who they already have a good rapport with," said Campbell.

Quality standards and control should be as easy to apply to smaller
licensed growers as it is with vast-scale growers, she added.

The proof of that is in her dispensary's clientele, said

"We do get a lot of Albertans because we have a lot of product their
licensed providers do not," she said.

An official with Health Canada directed Postmedia to a ministry
website page that insists there are few numerical roadblocks in the
way of law-abiding, prospective cannabis producers.

"The Government of Canada has no plans to limit the number of licences
that would be issued," it states.

"Additional details as to how the licensing regime will be
administered will be developed further in the months ahead."

It also says legislation targeting industry monopolies will apply to
marijuana legalization.

Cannabis co-op president Veri isn't so sure, given the enduring
uncertainties so rife amid the country's unprecedented legalization
roll out.

"There's a lot of confusion right now," he said, adding his inquiries
to Ottawa have so far gone unanswered.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt