The Great Cannabis Count
The Walrus|July/August 2021
Inside statisticians’ quest to quantify the hazy economy of weed
ALANNA MITCHELL

IN 2008, after decades advising national statistical agencies to count only legal market activity in their annual reports, international accountancy mavens at the United Nations Statistics Division — the global trendsetters who tell countries how to do their books — decided that the wages of sin ought to be included too.

That spawned a frenzy of number-crunching. By 2014, novel line items appeared in the accounts of most European Union countries, estimating the economic value of prostitution and illegal drugs. (It’s a work in progress. For example, in 2016, the UK clarified its books to reflect the fact that sex workers tend to conduct business forty weeks a year rather than fifty-two.) The United States, famously prim when it comes to certain kinds of sinning, does not count illegal activity in its national books. Nor does it count cannabis despite the fact that the substance is now legal in a raft of states.

Canada, too, excludes sex work and illegal drug activity from its spreadsheets. But, when Ottawa announced that it would be legalizing recreational cannabis in 2018 (the medicinal stuff had been legit since 2001), the country found itself needing to figure out just how much our basement toking was contributing to the national economy. So Statistics Canada, our most staid government agency, embarked on a nimble-footed, yearslong quest to do the math of pot, complete with its own original taxonomy and an astonishingly tender amount of detail — a fervour that has gained plaudits from some of the UN’s select club of national accountants.

Our groundbreaking methodology — which includes sifting through wastewater and poking through memories of pot prices paid sixty years ago — was the subject of a packed session at the international accountancy community’s biannual meeting in Copenhagen in 2018 and is seen as a potential model for other countries.

Anthony Peluso, until recently an assistant director at Statistics Canada, was charged in 2017 with overseeing the intricate process of figuring out the current and historical value of the weed economy in Canada. That extends to labour statistics, manufacturing, imports, exports, policing, health care, and so on. Peluso, though silver-haired, could be mistaken for actor Stanley Tucci. It’s the magnificent black eyebrows and the roguish glint that I can see in his eye even over Zoom. But it’s also the comedic impulse. For example, even months after he retired (he’s now a private consultant in Ottawa), Peluso’s Facebook profile page descriptor was “Professional cannabis connoisseur.” And, because he no longer has to comply with what he grinningly calls the “communications hygiene” of a government agency that has no obvious sense of humour, he can give us a peek behind StatCan’s cannabis curtain.

IT’S ANCIENT, this urge to count things. About 10,000 years ago, even before they developed written language, as best as we can tell, early Sumerians in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers used “count stones,” tiny symbols of the quantities of things, to monitor inventory. How many sheep were in storage? How many sheafs of wheat? Then, about 5,000 years ago, they made the logical leap to the first writing systems. Again, the invention seems to have been aimed originally at administrative tallying, which is to say, keeping track of stuff. It had political ends. Sumerians counted food, money, and trade, the underpinnings of the cities and governments they were inventing.

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