New medical marijuana regulations are shaking up the industry in Canada.

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Mid-Island pot production proposals plentiful

Health Canada is flooded with applications from companies that want to tap into a burgeoning new industry reminiscent of the gold rush days

Proposals to build medical marijuana production facilities are popping up like weeds on Vancouver Island after the federal government privatized the pot industry.

Some are calling it the next dot-com era.

Early this year, the federal government started issuing licences to companies allowing them to sell medical marijuana to an estimated 37,000 patients. The companies are to be highly regulated and, of course, taxed. Since the announcement, Health Canada has been swamped with hundreds of proposals — including at least two in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area: one in Nanoose Bay and one in Deep Bay.

And while many neighbours have voiced opposition, much fanfare has been made about a burgeoning new industry — one many are eager to tap into.

“This could be the great new commodity for North Americans,” said Philippe Lucas. “People are starting to see money go from below ground to above ground, from the black market to the stock market in some cases.”

Lucas is the vice-president of patient research and services at Tilray, a Nanaimo-based medical pot operation that opened last April and now houses 30,000 plants on site, making it the largest facility in the country. He said Tilray recently held its second job fair and already employs 100 full-time staff.

Lucas called it “the start of a new bio-tech industry in Nanaimo.”

It cost $20 million to open the facility and Lucas said due to the company’s success, plans of expansion are already on the horizon.

According to Health Canada, only 13 companies have been licensed to sell medical marijuana in the country, while many others wait in limbo, such as the Nanoose Bay and Deep Bay operations.

But it may be worth the wait.

Health Canada estimates that within the decade, the marketplace will grow to at least 400,000 registered patients generating billions of dollars in annual sales.

“The new regulations are opening up access to medical cannabis and subsequently a discussion,” said Lucas, adding that Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has touted the idea of decriminalizing marijuana. “All of this has opened up interest and purse strings.”

Lucas said he “absolutely” believes it is just a matter of time before marijuana is legalized in Canada.

“The dialog has shifted from ‘whether it will or whether it won’t (be legalized)’ to ‘how and when it will be,'” he said. “This momentum will move forward to legalize adult access (to marijuana).”

Dr. Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, a history professor at VIU with expertise in drug and alcohol research, said it was “very forward thinking” of the federal government to change marijuana regulations in Canada.

“It’s a recognition that marijuana has more uses than just being recreational,” said Krasnick Warsh. “What is interesting is that it (marijuana) is a huge industry — not for medical purposes but for consumption — and it’s an industry that hasn’t been tapped in terms of taxation.”

So, is this the start of a green rush?

“I’m not exactly sure,” she said. “There will be many people who will invest in it thinking that it is.”

Krasnick Warsh said this era shares qualities of the prohibition period (of alcohol) in Canada.

“Immediately after prohibition in Canada we went into a period of liquor legislation,” she said. “Liquor control boards came in and they basically had two mandates: one was to control consumption so minors couldn’t get it and the other was to make as much tax money as possible — there are very few places the government can raise taxes and people won’t cry foul.”

Krasnick Warsh said it would be difficult for the government to allow medical marijuana while outlawing the substance for recreational use at the same time.

“This really is opening the door,” she said. “But you can find ways to control consumption — in the long run I wouldn’t be surprised if we had outlets like you have for liquor, or if you were able to buy it (marijuana) in cigarette packages. It would take away a lot of the mystique and the average consumer might feel more comfortable buying a product regulated by the government.”

She said by changing the regulations, the government is taking control out of the hands of people who are growing marijuana in their backyard or basement.

“Once the government starts growing it (marijuana) and distilling it and making different forms for different disorders, there will be so much government regulation for producers,” she said. “What I see in the long run is it will be like any other drug — it will be monopolized by large companies . . . or some of the big tobacco companies.”

Lucas said the recent changes in medical marijuana legislation are “part of a broader social change as North Americans reconsider this substance (marijuana).”

He said Tilray produces more than 40 different strains of medical marijuana, treating a range of disorders from insomnia to Crohn’s disease, and the company is able to ship its product across the country within 24 hours.

“What you see with privatization is a professionalization of this industry,” he said. “Now that we have companies investing millions of dollars in medical cannabis it brings with it the opportunity for industry groups to lobby government — we are going to see a massive amount of energy and resources dedicated to improving medical cannbis and these resources wouldn’t be available if it weren’t for the regulations of the medical marijuana program.”

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