That time we invented the CCBO – the Cannabis Control Board of Ontario

Creating a Cannabis Control Board of Ontario (CCBO) made plenty of sense in April of 2005, when a roomful of advocates gathered at the Niagara Falls Public Library for a cannabis conference. The day featured panels, guest speakers and concluded with the second annual Highway 420 Smoke Out.

We discussed a wide range of topics, such as how legalization could grow local tourism, how the farming community could benefit and what the retail model could look like.

It’s a weird and crazy personal experience to see that much of what we discussed at the time is now becoming a reality. Yesterday, the provincial government announced the new Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation (OCRC, not the CCBO as we had thought) announced that the Ottawa-based Shopify will host its forthcoming e-commerce site. Last year, Ontario cannabis consumers were told that post-legalization this summer, the OCRC will also launch 40 brick-and-mortar stores to retail cannabis. 

Back in 2005, it was a far-out idea to even suggest legal cannabis producers could use Niagara Region greenhouses to grow. When I was interviewed by a Toronto Sun reporter at the time, I said, “This is a farming community, so let’s make our farmers some money.” Thirteen years later, Tweed, Newstrike and Redecan are all growing nugs in the Niagara Region!

It was practically blasphemous to Niagara Falls’ family-friendly image to suggest back then that the city could benefit from toker tourism. Now, Niagara Falls Tourism is likely pondering the possibility of licensed cannabis consumption lounges.

Legal greenhouses and toking tourism were tangible ideas people could relate to because the public couldn’t even imagine marijuana legalization. We thought the idea gave pro-prohibition politicians a way to address our issues.

We mocked up a CCBO logo (we assumed it would be called the Cannabis Control Board of Ontario, which many people are also using today), and we used it to drive home the point: this is what legalization could look like.

For attendees at the event – many of whom are still advocating today for issues such as private retail storefronts, the aforementioned licensed lounges and clemency for previous cannabis-related convictions – it was all about a feeling of optimism. Real progress seemed unlikely.

But the CCBO marketing campaign generated plenty of daily newspaper media coverage in the province, which was somewhat of a rarity back then. “Mernagh called for Ontario to create a Cannabis Control Board, along the lines of the LCBO stores that control liquor sales in the province,” declared the Niagara Falls Review on April 18, 2005.

The CCBO was the perfect counter argument to Niagara Falls’ Conservative MP Rob Nicholson. As then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s justice minister, Nicholson ushered in Canada’s mandatory marijuana minimum sentence laws.

But I think our CCBO campaign began to chip away at their anti-cannabis messaging because the concept was something the media could easily grasp.

Back then the provincial Liberals, who have held power since 2003, said prohibition was solely a federal issue. The CCBO wasn’t going to go anywhere politically in the province.

Now, 13 years after we held our conference, some of the very same provincial politicians who said prohibition wasn’t their problem are now making decisions regarding Ontario’s retail model.

For other Ontario MPPs, the OCRC is a fresh, new idea. The comfort zone in Ontario, as we suspected, is a government-run retailer. Hopefully, that doesn’t mean going all the way back to when the LCBO issued passbooks to track client purchases; required a person to write their order down (to prevent someone from being enticed after overhearing); and consumption was only allowed in homes (and, a few years later, select hotels).

Cannabis legalization had to become as popular as Nickelback before the current crop of politicians would even consider a CCBO, but back in ‘05 legalization was still very DIY punk rock, complete with venue bookings, arranging flights for advocates, finding sponsorship and doing promotion.  

Our conference was a success (thanks to the efforts of fellow co-organizers Frank Discussion and Buzzworthy). But it took 13 years to really see how much of success these efforts were.

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