Some woud argue that the biggest cannabis-related news story of the year revolved around vaping. And they would certainly have a point.
In October, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada outlined the potential risks and offered guidance to the provinces and territories. This followed several deaths and recent cases of pulmonary illnesses related to this activity in the United States.
The following month, Vancouver city council voted unanimously to ask staff to report back in the first quarter of 2020 on regulatory measures and actions that council can take relating to the sale and promotion of vaping products.
These devices are often battery-powered and avoid the necessity of burning products like tobacco and cannabis. But because vaping was a health story that went far beyond weed and extended into nicotine and young people's health, I chose not to include it below.
Instead, I decided to list my top five purely cannabis stories affecting local residents.
1. Differential weed pricing
When Justin Trudeau legalized cannabis, Canadians were told that it would replace the underground market with legalized, regulated sales.
But that hasn't entirely occurred.
That's because the cost of going legal—and having to rely exclusively on weed from licensed producers—has made it difficult for provincially licensed store owners to compete with illegal vendors, notwithstanding the declining price of some of their products.
In addition, the feds made it extremely difficult for people with criminal records to work in the legal cannabis sphere, even if those records were weed-related. So many craft growers simply continued supplying the illegal market, ensuring there was an ample supply.
B.C. lawyer John Conroy told the Straight earlier this year that a better approach would have been to create pathways for these people to enter the legal industry.
"Take the existing industry and roll it in so it's not competing with you," Conroy advised. "They keep saying they're trying to get rid of the black market but they keep doing things to maintain it—the edibles being the classic example.
"They delay edibles a year," he continued. "Then they come up with this ridiculous 10 milligrams [rule]. Where is your head, man? People are just going to keep going to the black market."
According to Statistics Canada, the average cannabis price from legal sources from April through June was $10.65 per gram. That contrasted with $5.93 per gram from illegal sources. This data was culled from surveys of 572 buyers.
The B.C. government's second-quarter fiscal update alluded to the magnitude of the problem.
"B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch net income forecast has declined $18 million due to the delayed rollout of private/public cannabis stores and lower than anticipated demand," it stated.
This led directly to a second big cannabis story of 2019—a B.C. government crackdown.
2. Community Safety Unit raids
This was the year when the B.C. government got serious about trying to shut down down on the illegal weed market.
Undoubtedly, it was motivated by the impact that unlicensed sellers and growers were having on legal cannabis sales through the monopoly wholesaler, the government-owned Liquor Distribution Branch and licensed public and private stores.
The Community Safety Unit under the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General raided several dispensaries, including one owned by high-profile weed merchant Dana Larsen on Thurlow near Davie Street in October.
This occurred even though Larsen insisted that he was compliant with all city bylaws and regulations.
Larsen has been one of the city's foremost advocates for making cannabis available as a replacement for opioids to save lives in the midst of a catastrophic overdose crisis.
The Community Safety Unit's decision to seize Larsen's cannabis didn't impress Vancouver lawyer Sarah Leamon.
"Although the law is squarely on the government's side in terms of raiding dispensaries and fining owners, that doesn’t automatically make its approach morally justifiable," Leamon wrote on Straight.com.
3. CannTrust Holdings debacle
In July, a Vaughan, Ontario–based licensed producer, CannTrust Holdings, made a startling admission. It announced that it was holding back 12,700 kilograms of dried cannabis and dried-cannabis equivalent products after Health Canada ruled that at least 5,200 were grown in unlicensed rooms.
While this might seem like an Ontario story, it shook the confidence of the investment community and sent the share price of CannTrust Holdings and virtually all other Canadian cannabis stocks into a serious tailspin.
By December 27, CannTrust shares were trading at a mere $1.08, down from a 53-week high of $13.48.
Other Canadian cannabis stocks were also hammered in 2019. Canopy Growth Corp. was at $25.11, down from a 52-week high of $70.98; Aurora Cannabis Inc. was at $2.50, down from a 52-week high of $13.67.
Retail investors across the country, including many in Vancouver, saw a sharp decline in the value of their cannabis stocks.
What stung the most was that this came in the same year that the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose nearly 25 percent and the NASDAQ 100 Index was up nearly 40 percent.
In December, Canopy Growth Corporation's largest shareholder, New York–based Constellation Brands, tried to arrest the slide by naming its chief financial officer, David Klein, as Canopy's CEO.
That followed a particularly brutal second quarter, when Constellation Brands reported a US$484-million equity loss on its $5-billion investment in Canopy in 2018.
4. Legal private stores proliferate
When Evergreen Cannabis received the first B.C. government licence on December 24, 2018, to open a private store, it became an international news story.
A year later, the media barely notices if another retail outlet opens.
That's because there are already legal privately owned cannabis stores in most areas of the city, with more coming soon to Mount Pleasant, Dunbar, Fairview, Hastings-Sunrise, and the downtown core.
City Cannabis Co., Evergreen Cannabis, Hobo, Village Bloomery, Muse Cannabis Store, Kiaro, Buddha Barn, KushKlub, Village Bloomery, Eggs Canna Main, and UEM Cannabis outlets are offering legal weed in Vancouver. Soon, they'll be joined in an increasingly competitive market by Canoe Canada, THC Canada, Canapa Sky, and La Canapa Cannabis.
5. Edibles, topicals and extracts legalized
For years, B.C. cannabis consumers have had access to edibles, topicals, and extracts if they knew where to look.
But this month, these products finally became available for those who prefer buying their pot-related products in the government-regulated market.
It couldn't have come soon enough for the city's legal pot shops.
But with the bland packaging rules and onerous requirements around THC levels, it remains to be seen if new Aurora Cannabis chocolates will do anything for the company's share price in 2020.