Book Announcement!
Policy Alternatives Issue #17 October 2022

At long last, my book is on the home stretch and available for pre-order from Black Rose Books (Montreal) and University of Chicago Press.

Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis is the story of one of Canada’s least understood drug policy failures that quietly unfolded beneath the cover of two loud and calamitous pandemics of drug overdoses and COVID-19.

When the Canadian government’s 2016 Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation asked for input, it received over 30,000 responses – during the summer. Canadians were interested. Policy analysts and health policy organizations in Canada and abroad were also interested, and with some trepidation. Harms from the products of other recreational drug industries – alcohol and tobacco – were already recognized as international public health crises. For decades, they accounted for more harm and economic costs than all illegal drugs combined. In the closing years of the 20th century, a pandemic of opioid overdoses was launched with aggressive, deceptive, and illegal promotional campaigns by legal pharmaceutical companies. The problem was made worse by reckless prescribing, ineffective regulatory responses, and the illegal trade in opioids. But the genesis lay with the conduct of legal pharmaceutical corporations.

The history of pharmaceutical, tobacco, and alcohol corporations’ frequent non-compliance with regulations, and even criminal conduct in their unbridled pursuit of revenue, has been well-documented. These corporations have not been held accountable in a manner that reforms their conduct. At the time of cannabis legalization, we had three legal, government regulated, revenue driven drug industries, and we had three international public health crises. There were reasonable concerns and warnings from health policy authorities that revenue-driven cannabis corporations would adopt the same playbook as their elder drug industry siblings. The Liberal Party drew in the warnings, but it did not inhale.

Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis tells the story of how the Liberal Party of Canada abandoned a half century of social justice advocacy and discounted drug policy evidence and expert advice in favour of creating and expanding a lucrative new drug industry. Investigative journalists had also shown that Liberal Party elites had already invested in licensed cannabis producers that supplied cannabis for therapeutic (medical) use. After forming a government, the Party promptly established a Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation which was compromised by blatant conflicts of interest. It’s recommendations predictably gave precedence to industry revenue growth over public health protection on key issues.

The Liberal Party also developed a sophisticated communications strategy to deceive the Canadian public. The first deceit of a three-part ruse was to convince parents that their children were buying cannabis from violent organized crime figures who would expose them to more dangerous kinds of drugs and more violent types of crime. The academic evidence and the government’s own intel indicated that this was untrue.

The second deception was to convince Canadians that the dangerous illegal trade in cannabis would be replaced with a stable, legal industry that would be law abiding in the provision of safe product. More than four years into legalization, the illegal trade still prospers. The worse news is that legal cannabis producers have had large amounts of product seized or recalled due to regulatory violations during production, product contamination, and labelling errors – the same reasons used to justify the move away from an unlicensed trade. The worst news is that some licensed producers have engaged in criminal activity and have been found to be connected to organized crime. Few executives have been charged and none have been held legally accountable. Some of the largest companies have never turned a profit. Despite the carousel of scandals, and an unfathomable lack of business acumen, cannabis executives walked away with millions of dollars while many companies went into debt, declared insolvency, terminated staff with no income security, and squandered the savings of investors as stock values plummeted. Given the course of cannabis legalization in Canada thus far, it is tempting to conclude that the primary objective of corporate cannabis was not to provide cannabis to consumers. That was merely the performative pretense. The primary objective was to convert investors’ dreams into multi-million-dollar executive pay-outs. Crafty executives faked it for a couple years and when the jig was up, they took the money and ran. They were set for life.

Some of Canada’s largest cannabis companies have now accepted investment from, and surrendered control to, large tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical corporations. Given the history of these industries, what are the implications for the future of the cannabis industry?

The third part of the ruse was a promise that the government would take a public health approach that would strictly regulate the industry to protect cannabis users and the public. Instead, public health and social justice were strategically compromised for market expansion. After legalization, cannabis users are still being criminalized. The Cannabis Act provides for sentences of up to 5 years in prison for possessing cannabis from an unlicensed source – the same victimless crime it has always been. The criminal records result in the same needless, devastating harm to peoples’ lives that they always have.

Buzz Kill also tells the story of a mostly benign unlicensed cannabis trade treated harshly by government, even when it behaved civilly, and of a legal trade protected by government, even when it committed crimes. It also explains how legalization could have happened in a way that was consistent with evidence, expert advice, and compassion. Alternatives such as decriminalization, not-for-profit models, and more opportunity for smaller craft grow operations were all on the table. These options were ignored or discounted in a process rife with unrelenting greed, conflict of interest and unapologetic cronyism.

Cannabis law reform is now a world-wide phenomenon. Many jurisdictions are watching Canada. We failed to set a good example, but we can still share the circumstances, reasons, and lessons from our failure for the benefit of other jurisdictions. The Cannabis Act requires the Canadian government to evaluate its legalization efforts. It is now more than a year behind schedule and is unlikely to be more than a whitewash. Buzz Kill was written to provide the disheartening, but necessary, counterpoint.

Buzz Kill concludes with an acknowledgment that the continued criminalization of all drug use is a global tragedy. But it asserts that corporate legalization is not the solution. The next decade will see unprecedented calls for policy reforms in Canada and abroad for cannabis as well as psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD, and even for all currently illegal drugs. Buzz Kill encourages us to learn from the mistakes of cannabis legalization in Canada. It challenges us to have the courage and humanity to explore evidence-based alternatives based upon social justice and public health.

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
October 31, 2022

“I have worked in the legal side of cannabis for many years & in the black market of cannabis many years. In my experience there are more shady people in the legal market than the black market. It’s amazing what you can get away with legally nowadays.”
– Jon Grow (@Grow_Supplies), Twitter February 3, 2019.

“Drug reformers get seduced by politicians who co-opt our language but who make no meaningful change. And when we don’t hold politicians accountable, we contribute to harm.”
– Dr. Carl Hart