Making P.G. pot central

Five hundred years ago, back when Scotch was just whisky, almost everybody in Scotland could make and sell it.

It was only 200 years ago, when the government started taxing sales, allowed the licensed distilleries to grow and shut down the bootleggers that Scotch started to become a thing.

Today, of course, whisky is made around the world but only whisky from Scotland is allowed to call itself Scotch.

The similarities between whisky in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries and marijuana in Prince George in 2017 are many. The residents of a somewhat isolated northern region that’s not too far from major cities are heavy producers and consumers of a beloved intoxicant. The government decides to legalize the product, partly to recognize the will of the people, but mostly to turn it into a lucrative tax revenue stream.

What happened next in Scotland was competition and innovation, as distilleries competed first with each other for audience and then the rest of the world.

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine a similar future, but much sooner, for marijuana in Canada and in the northern interior of B.C.

Sadly, everyone except for the politicians seems ready to talk about it. Residents and entrepreneurs are excited about the opportunities but the provincial and most municipal governments are nervous.

Forget LNG and Kinder Morgan. With government collaboration and encouragement, savvy entrepreneurs could create an agricultural crop worth billions, create thousands of sustainable, long-term jobs and send hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the tax coffers.

Imagine innovations coming from B.C. in packaging, marketing and quality control that could lead B.C. bud to become the Scotch of the pot world. And imagine the Prince George region as the marijuana equivalent of the Scottish Highlands, home to large production facilities producing brand-name pot sought by discerning consumers around the world.

No self-respecting Scotch drinker will indulge buying some hooch off some guy, not even in Scotland. They want the history and quality inherent in the Johnnie Walker or the Ballantyne (or the Glenfiddich and the Macallan for the single-malt connoisseurs).

People can legally make their own wine and beer for their consumption but most consumers prefer the brand names, the status and the variety available commercially.

The day marijuana is sold in a fancy package as a premium intoxicant with diverse varieties and geographic regions, rather than the cheap weed supplied by the high school stoner, is near.

The only thing missing is the courage of political and community leaders to embrace the economic opportunity.

They don’t have to condone the product or its use, they can (and should) work hard to make sure marijuana is only consumed by adults, just like alcohol and tobacco.

What they should do is let the marketplace decide. The City of Prince George and the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George should have clear bylaws in place for marijuana production and sales that encourage investment for both medicinal and commercial use.

The current city zoning, passed in 2015, shortly after the current mayor and council took office, is already outdated because it only speaks to medical marijuana production.

City council needs to have rules in place well before next summer, allowing entrepreneurs to line up investors, locations, production facilities, workers and customers long before next July, when the federal government plans to legalize cannabis.

Treat pot production the same as any other industry, with specific zoning to keep it out of residential and retail areas. Treat pot sales the same as liquor sales, restricting both the number and the proximity of outlets.

Work with the province and producers to create high quality standards that ensures locally-produced pot is both safe and excellent. Work with police to shutdown backyard trafficking operations.

If industrialized cannabis production doesn’t take off, no harm done. But if it does, Prince George positions itself on the ground floor of a lucrative, potentially worldwide marijuana production and distribution hub, with the jobs and the economic growth that comes with it.

Even if Prince George city council does nothing on the production front and let’s those dollars go to more progressive communities, there are still decisions that will have to be made, such as what to do about restaurants making and selling food with marijuana butter as an ingredient and whether local non-profit groups can sell or auction off pot as a form of fundraising.

Prince George shouldn’t wait for Victoria or Ottawa to decide.

Over to you, city council.

— Managing editor Neil Godbout / Prince George Citizen