In Ross’s Toronto-area backyard on a warm fall day, a bee was enjoying the flowers on a basil plant in the sun.
“I’ve got some peas that didn’t do particularly well,” he explained. “I’ve got some tomatoes that did very well despite the fact that they were stuffed two in each pot. Basil, thyme, rosemary and the odd flower.”
And in the middle of the garden, in a pot he can move around to catch the sun, was a flourishing cannabis plant in full flower. With the pot, it was taller than many adults. In a month or so, as the frost date approaches, he hopes it will be ready to harvest.
In the meantime, another bee was investigating one of its buds.
Back in the spring, Ross looked at the seed offerings at the government-operated Ontario Cannabis Store, but wasn’t impressed. Like other provincial retailers, the OCS has never stocked more than two varieties, and at the moment has only one.
“I did consider it, but the lack of variety was the main impediment. There’s pretty much zero variety.”
Instead, he ordered from the Free Seed Hub, an online exchange for free cannabis seeds. The seeds that arrived yielded one female, so that’s what he’s growing.
Ross didn’t want to be fully identified because of concerns about theft and what he sees as an ongoing stigma around cannabis.
It’s not hard to find Canadians who grow their own weed. But it’s virtually impossible to find any who bought seed from legal retailers.
Why? Most of a full growing season after legalization, legal retailers still offer a tiny selection of seeds. One province now offers none at all.
Grey-market sources, on the other hand, offer a huge variety.
Some growers buy from them; others find people who are giving away seeds or small plants called clones.
So long as no money changes hands, there’s nothing illegal about an adult being given plants or seeds in a province where home grows are legal. A Canadian Reddit group devoted to connecting people who want to give away clones with people who’d like to receive them has 1,500 members.
Across Canada, the only seeds offered by legal retailers are two indica-dominant varieties from Tweed, which may or may not actually be for sale in any given province.
“It’s very, very limited,” says Brittny Anderson of the Nelson, B.C.-based Cannabis Conservancy. “It’s really problematic.”
B.C. is hoping to offer more seeds in the future, a spokesperson said.
“Currently, only one of the licensed producers that the (B.C.) Liquor Distribution Branch works with is able to supply seeds,” Kate Bilney wrote in an e-mail.
“The LDB is committed to expanding its product assortment to effectively cater to the market, and is continually working with its licensed producers to offer new products to customers as they become available.”
Want to branch out and grow something different? Your only options are to a) wait patiently for the legal selection to improve or b) turn to the grey market.
One online grey-market retailer offers over 50 kinds of feminized seeds (guaranteed female, which means they should produce flowers) and over 80 recommended for outdoor use, sorted by weeks needed to harvest, information you would need to grow outdoors in a cold climate if you wanted your plants to be ready before a hard frost.
“I’m from the Kootenays, and I think here it would be primarily sourced from the grey market,” Anderson says.
“The Kootenays is a region that has been known for cannabis cultivation for a really long time. There are a lot of people that are connected to the industry, and the quality, the genetics that people are looking for just tend to be available to people in this market.”
The price of legal seed is a bit above the most expensive grey-market seed. Legal retailer albertacannabis.org sells its two varieties at $60 for a four-pack ($15 per seed), while feminized grey-market seeds range from $40 for five ($8 each) to $65 for five ($13 each).
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Legal seeds were bred for huge greenhouses
And the seeds that are available, Bakerstreet and Argyle, were bred for life in a big industrial growing facility, says B.C.-based cannabis breeder Ryan Lee. Canadians growing in their basements, or in a range of outdoor environments in different climates, are all offered the same two plants — at best — from legal sellers.
“Ideally, growers would know, okay, I’m going to grow in this environment and this is the seed that I should be getting,” he says. “Bakerstreet was selected to be grown indoors or in a greenhouse environment, and then if you take that plant and grow it outside in Smiths Falls, it might not finish (be ready for harvest before frost).”
“There should be dozens and dozens of SKUs on the market to fill all those different niches.”
But seed not from legal retailers may not be what it’s advertised to be, he warns.
“One thing about the black market seed market if that people realize that people want seeds that are called Bakerstreet, for example, so they take a couple of plants and cross them together and call it Bakerstreet.”
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Few home growers seem to get seeds from legal retailers
How many Canadians have tried growing their own from seeds or plants bought legally?
From legalization until the end of June, Canadians bought over 45,000 individual seeds from legal retailers for non-medical purposes. Since legal seeds are typically sold in four-packs, that means that about 11,000 households are likely have at least tried to grow cannabis from seed. (We’re assuming that few people would spend $55 to $60 on a pack of seeds and not try to grow them.)
Up until June, LPs had sold about 1,200 young plants, or “clones”, to the recreational market. All of these have been sold through a so far unique arrangement in Newfoundland and Labrador in which Cannabis NL online customers pay for the plants on the site, which are then shipped by mail from a growing facility in Strathroy, Ont.
(Cannabis NL has stopped selling clones. The Strathroy grower, Eve & Co., did not respond to a request for comment.)
How many are growing their own in total?
We have a rough number for that, too: StatsCan estimates that 425,000 Canadians consumed home-grown cannabis in the first half of 2019.
Even allowing that some of those were medical users and some were smoking recreational weed home-grown by somebody else, that’s still an enormous gap.
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Why LPs can’t offer new varieties
Some of the lack of choice is rooted in a compromise made to get the recreational market up and running quickly.
Legislators wanted to eliminate the black market but saw that the vast numbers of plants that legal producers needed, and needed immediately, had to come from somewhere. The solution was to allow companies applying to be licensed producers to bring in genetics from illegal sources, but only once.
The problem is that if a licensed producer wants to stock up on new varieties after that point — to sell to home growers or for any other reason — they can’t legally do it, explains cannabis lawyer Matt Maurer.
The system creates perverse incentives.
“Some applicants have been approached by licensees and they have said, ‘We can get you access to these amazing grey-market genetics. We want you to bring it into the legal system when you get licensed. Here is how you will be compensated. You’ll grow it for us, or we’ll give you half the revenue.’ There are a variety of ways to do it.”
For the time being, Canadian home growers who turn away from legal sellers are immediately rewarded with far better selection.
“If we want to compete with the black market, the products have to match the black market, or be superior,” Maurer argues.
Federal rules should just allow LPs to bring plants in from the grey market, he says.
“If there are more strains and there are more varieties and there are things that you can’t get in the legal market that you can get in the illegal market, and there’s no public health and safety concern about why that strain can’t go into the regulated market, why not?”
As well, he says, LPs may not be all that motivated to support home growers.
“If you’re selling someone apples, do you really want to sell them the tree so that they can grow their own apples and stop buying yours?”
Lee points out that big cannabis production facilities, which are organized to raise cloned plants in tightly controlled conditions, aren’t set up to produce seeds.
“To drive a wide range of seed types for the home consumer is a very specific business model. It’s not transferable. When they’re growing these 30,000-square foot rooms, it’s not like they can take 100 square feet and dedicate it to seed production.”
“That requires pollen to be flying around, and if pollen is in the air it’s going to pollinate the rest of the plants.”
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We asked Anderson what she hopes this will look like in the future.
“You’d be walking into a nursery,” she says. “You’d see the plants in front of you. The person is educated in that type of plants, the growing conditions for that plant, the properties of that plant. It would be more of a nursery or farmer’s market experience than an industrial sort of Wal-Mart nursery centre experience.”
Home growers will want different effects from plants — some might want high CBD, for example — but outdoor growers in different regions could be offered different plants.
“Are you growing in the Yukon, or are you growing on Vancouver Island? It’s going to be quite different.”
“They came from an online retailer that was not the OCS,” he says carefully.