Canada Looks to B.C., Alberta After Ontario Drops the Ball on Legalization

September 15, 2017

The Ontario government has unveiled it’s plan to regulate cannabis in the province in July 2018. Lawmakers believe they can eliminate the black market by opening 40 government run stores and a mail order delivery in the first year, followed by 40 more stores in 2019 and 150 by 2020. They will shut down all illegal dispensaries before the official stores are open. The local neighbourhood dealer better be well prepared for all the business that will come their way.

For over 60 years cannabis has been relatively easy to find for anyone wanting to purchase some. You are not creating a new market – you are competing with a thriving, long established, unregulated market. The public in Ontario are also well seasoned in going to dispensaries in many locales, and having a wonderful consumer experience by speaking with knowledgeable staff, and seeing and smelling the product. At the government cannabis store it will be a throwback to decades old policy of handing your order to an attendant who will get it from the back room and hand it over in opaque packaging. The current consumer experience in Ontario versus the new regulated model will be a contrast in complete opposites. Absorbing the dispensaries, like Colorado did, would have been a good first step in eliminating the illegal market.

Accessibility is a major key to success in distributing the plant. Quality and price are also important factors but that is still undetermined in the regulations at this time. Opening of 40 stores will simply not cut it when the market will easily bear over 100 in the GTA alone. How could so few stores service such demand? How is the customer not going to be inconvenienced by having to drive a good distance to the store and be met with constant long lines? They are not.. They will phone buddy up the street and buy from her or him.

Any medical patient will testify how inadequate the mail order system is – having to plan days in advance for your next order, limited selection, and delivery surcharges to name a few problems. The medical market is kept afloat by the illegal market, so the outcry is minimal.

Ontario already regulates liquor through government run stores, so it is not really surprising that they chose this path to commence cannabis sales. A large portion of Ontarians are disappointed that private retail outlets were not considered. The public seem unhappy with the LCBO and adding cannabis to an already unpopular framework spells an unworkable situation.

Replacing a totally unregulated market with a tight, restrictive market will never work in terms of social control, especially in the short term. There has to be some consideration for the status quo, how easy and accessible it is to buy, the personalized service, even credit terms in some cases, known as “fronts”. The government must meet the people at least half way if they are serious about a legal market.

Quebec is indicating that it could possibly ban home cultivation and may not be very cooperative in implementing a sound regulatory scheme, which puts Alberta in a unique position to truly lead the way in cannabis regulation. Liquor is distributed privately throughout the province, going from 208 government run liquor stores scattered across the province in 1993 to more than 2,000 (2013 figures) with many open until 2 a.m. every day. The ability to purchase liquor has never been easier. It can be the same for cannabis. A minimum of 300 stores, taking into account population growth in 2018 versus 1993, opening on day one, would give the appearance that the government is serious about eliminating the illegal market. Albertans have never had dispensaries they could walk into and purchase cannabis, so the experience will be completely new to most of them. However, Albertans are used to having their vices within easy reach, be it liquor, gambling, cannabis or tobacco, so making cannabis sales very restrictive will follow in Ontario’s footsteps of failure to implement a regulated market.

B.C. is also in a unique position to be a leader in cannabis regulation and the government has publicly spoken about the realities on the ground – the existing large cannabis market in the province and how to possibly accommodate it. It not only has a proliferation of public and private liquor stores, but also a model for stand alone cannabis sales in the form of dispensaries. These dispensaies are already in the process of obtaining business licenses and could conceivably be transformed into legal outlets, as was done in Colorada. It is mostly to B.C. we look for some semblance of a reasonable cannabis policy that may be the most successful in reducing the illegal market, although don’t underestimate Alberta, it could go either way.

The public, many academics and almost everyone else has expressed disappointment with the Ontario model and are now looking at B.C. and Alberta for some meaningful direction.

Please don’t fear to be bold and decisive in making good, sound cannabis policy that could possibly reduce the illegal market.

Debra Harper