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B.C. cannabis tourism struggles to take flight

Murky regulations and competition keeping cannabis industry grounded after legalization
Cannabis consumers outside the BC Cannabis Summit at the Hotel Eldorado in Kelowna in 2023.

More than five years after cannabis was legalized in Canada, many in the industry are struggling to survive.

When the Cannabis Act came into force in October 2018, it was believed legal weed would be a sure-fire moneymaker, something that has been proven wrong.

One of those struggling businesses that popped up after legalization is Okanagan Cannabis Tours.

Owner Anne Marie Locas tells Castanet many of the rules around cannabis are preventing businesses like hers from surviving, let alone growing.

"The industry has just taken such a hit. You're asking, 'what am I doing this year?' I don't know what I'm doing this year because the industry just keeps running into roadblocks," she said.

This is despite a significant change for the cannabis industry announced by the provincial government in February, allowing for cannabis-friendly spaces and consumption of cannabis on public patios.

The information bulletin says, "licensees are able to promote a place to consume cannabis or to spend time after consuming cannabis."

It goes on to say that, "smoking and vaping cannabis on public patios is now permitted where smoking and vaping tobacco are already allowed."

On the surface that sounds like good news, but Locas says every municipality has different rules and interpretations. So far in Kelowna, no one has stepped forward to allow cannabis smoking in so-called 'smoke-pits' outside of coffee shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

"I really don't think it changes anything. What coffee shop is gonna want people smoking cannabis on their patio? If they do have a smoking area, there might be sort of some backlash to that," Locas said.

When Locas started her business she envisioned touring cannabis curious and aficionados around the Okanagan to see how the product is grown, learn more about cannabis, and of course, sample the products.

Instead, Locas says typically she has to pull her tours over in a parking lot or on the side of a road for her clients to partake. A far cry from the Okanagan's wine-touring industry.

"So we break the law, basically. It was sketchy."

Locas says she's not allowed to transport or produce cannabis and her business is only successful if her clients have a good experience.

"The problem is the industry is so young that they don't know how to engage with tourists."

The wine industry has turned into a well-oiled machine that is the envy of many tourist operations across the country, Locas hopes the cannabis tourism industry gets there too one day.

Right now, Locas says her tours end up going to cannabis shops.

"It's kind of like taking someone to a liquor store — it's not like taking someone to a winery."

Lucas says she's still breaking even but struggles with how to grow her business.

"I keep contemplating shutting this thing down."

Restrictions around other parts of the business like advertising also make it hard to grow, she said.

Government of Canada statistics indicate that the legal sale of cannabis peaked in 2023 and while the federal Cannabis Act sets the laws around cannabis advertising, provinces have the power to determine what is allowable in retail shops.

In the quarter that ended in September 2023, there were 490 cannabis stores in B.C.