Cannabis retailers call for BC Solicitor General’s resignation

Published on October 13, 2021 by David Wylie

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth
BC Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth is under fire by cannabis retailers.

A group of Okanagan cannabis retailers are calling for the resignation of the BC’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

In an open letter to Premier John Horgan, the Okanagan Cannabis Collective says Farnworth has demonstrated he is “incapable” of handling the file.

“It is through his failed leadership that the industry has experienced unnecessary hardships, in particular as it relates to the proliferation of illegal brick and mortar and illegal online cannabis stores,” says the letter sent directly to Horgan on Wednesday.

  • RELATED: BC dismisses calls to crack down on illicit pot shops

Speaking on behalf of the collective, Spiritleaf Vernon owner Sarah Ballantyne says many legal retailers are struggling to survive due to rampant unlicensed pot shops.

“We were promised change,” she says in an interview. “And we’re not seeing any real change here in the Okanagan. Weed is plentiful here. The black market is thriving.”

Ballantyne notes that eliminating the illegal market was the No. 1 mandate of legalization.

Sarah Ballantyne, owner of Spiritleaf Vernon, speaks for the Okanagan Cannabis Collective.

Sarah Ballantyne, owner of Spiritleaf Vernon, speaks for the Okanagan Cannabis Collective.

For years, retailers in the Okanagan have been reporting unlicensed operations throughout the Valley—where there are about 20—to the minister and the Community Safety Unit, tasked with enforcement. She says neither appear willing to take any action against the stores. To prove their case, the group has put together a Google Map of 35 known cannabis stores openly operating in BC without a licence.

She says why not eliminate some of the restrictions on legal stores to help ease the burden?

The collective is asking the province to immediately:

  • eliminate the requirement for legal retailers to remit PST
  • eliminate the 15% wholesale markup on cannabis products from the BCLDB
  • eliminate the annual cannabis retail licensing fee
  • freeze the issuance of new cannabis licenses
  • eliminate 20% vape tax

“Help us,” says Ballantyne. “Give us more tools to be successful or else we’re going to start seeing more legal stores close than open. The market is oversaturated.”

  • RELATED: First Nations cannabis stores a ‘hot potato’

Many of the unlicensed stores in the Okanagan are operating on Indigenous land, where enforcement could clash with reconciliation efforts. Ballantyne says the province needs to do a better job issuing licences on First Nations’ land, adding the government has not included Indigenous people properly on legislation.

“Either level the playing field for legal retailers or start enforcing those who don’t have a licence,” says Sarah Ballantyne.

The collective also notes in its letter that in a recent study 85% of illegal cannabis was found to be unfit for human consumption.

Ballantyne says retailers have tried to engage the government without success.

“It’s always a one-way conversation. We always make a lot of noise or make some headlines and they come back and say, ‘No, it’s not like that,’” she says.

“We’ve operated longer in a pandemic than not. We’re an essential service.”

Ministry officials respond to criticism

The BC government says it’s trying to balance reconciliation and enforcement.

In an email to the oz., a spokesman with the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General says respect for local Indigenous community interests must be taken into consideration.

“The province is committed to reconciliation, building positive relationships with Indigenous governments, understanding where they have different perspectives, and, where possible, collaborating to find resolution,” says the statement from the ministry.

“These efforts are balanced against the need to ensure that the legal and regulatory framework for cannabis is implemented across the Province and in alignment with federal laws.”

The ministry says officers with the Community Safety Unit, which is tasked with enforcing cannabis laws, have been increasing enforcement action and actively following up with unlicensed retailers throughout BC.

“The CSU is also educating those who own or operate properties about the potential consequences for allowing their premises to be used for the sale of cannabis,” says the ministry.

Police in BC

As for enforcement on Indigenous land, the ministry says the CSU is working to make connections with Indigenous communities and considers their views and interests when carrying-out compliance and enforcement activities, including reaching out to build relations with chief and council.

“This has helped develop positive relationships with Indigenous Nations and Bands and has resulted in obtaining compliance from unlicensed cannabis operations occurring on reserve,” says the ministry.

The ministry says it has been working with Indigenous communities interested in taking part in the cannabis industry, including the Williams Lake First Nation and the Cowichan Tribes.

“It’s been only three years since Canada legalized non-medical cannabis,” says the ministry.

“We remain committed to supporting the growth of a diverse, legal, and strong cannabis sector. We are always reviewing our cannabis regulations and looking to make sure the sector is supported in being as successful as possible.”

Enforcement throughout BC:

  • To date (Oct. 14, 2021), CSU officers have completed more than 70 inspections involving seizure of cannabis with a total estimated retail value of approximately $20 million.
  • Additionally, 173 unlicensed retailers have either closed or stopped selling cannabis as a direct result of the CSU’s actions.
  • As of Oct. 4, 2021, the Province has collected more than $1.2 million in penalties from illegal retailers who chose to continue to operate.
  • The CSU remains active and compliance and enforcement activities continue across BC.