Some time after next spring, Canadians will be able to legally buy marijuana for use purely for pleasure.
How will it be sold? That hasn’t been decided, and there’s a lot at stake for the potential players: a CIBC report earlier this year estimated the size of the national recreational cannabis market at up to $10 billion.
Everybody from existing licenced growers to public-sector unions, who would add members if provincial liquor store networks also sold pot, has weighed in. Revenue-hungry governments are hoping for the anticipated $5 billion in pot taxes.
There are four main options (one’s a non-starter, so really there are three):
- Mail-order from licenced growers
- Private sector storefronts, maybe based on existing dispensaries
- Stores run by provincial liquor store systems, maybe or maybe not in the same locations
- Probably not pharmacies – more on this below
Governments will face the same dilemma with legal recreational pot that they’ve struggled with for alcohol for generations – is their strategy more about maximizing revenue or more about limiting harm by controlling consumption? It’s possible (in theory) to balance the goals, but there will always be a tension between them.
“If it is about stimulating the economy and allowing mom and pop shops to be able to open up storefronts and things like that, then private sales make sense,” said University of Toronto PhD student Jenna Valleriani, who is an expert on marijuana dispensaries. “But if the goal is public health, then it’s the (liquor store) model, for all its faults and issues.”
A lot of institutional momentum is lining up behind pot distribution through existing liquor store systems.
“In some provinces, they would have the additional benefit of having a tightly regulated government monopoly by control board entities with a social responsibility mandate,” argued the Canadian Medical Association’s submission to the federal government’s task force on legalization.
Last December, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said that “It makes sense … that the liquor distribution mechanism that we have in place, the LCBO, is very well suited to putting in place the social responsibility aspects that would need to be in place.”
WATCH BELOW: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says the LCBO’s distribution model is ‘very well suited’ for marijuana sales if the federal government changes the nation’s cannabis laws.
“I can see why Kathleen Wynne reached for the idea of the LCBO,” Valleriani says. “She’s thinking: We have all the infrastructure here, we have everything set up, we can just expand that to include another substance.”
However, several people Global News spoke to cautioned against selling pot and alcohol in the same physical stores.
“The idea of selling cannabis alongside alcohol comes with a whole set of problems,” Valleriani said. “It promotes polydrug use.”
A Forum Research poll published in June showed liquor stores as the third choice, behind dispensaries and pharmacies, though using liquor stores to sell pot had more support among people who had actually smoked marijuana.
(New Democrats were most likely to support distribution in liquor stores, and Conservatives most likely to support distribution in pharmacies.)
But pharmacies, and pharmacists, seem to have no interest in getting involved with recreational marijuana.
“This is really not on our radar,” said Phil Emberley of the Canadian Pharmacists Association, which argued in its submission that medical marijuana should be sold through pharmacies, but hardly referred to recreational pot at all.
“We really wanted to focus on the need for pharmacists to be involved in clinical oversight,” Emberley explained. “That’s where we see the profession of pharmacy being involved in this – we know that these medications are potent, we know that marijuana is potent and that there can be drug interactions with medical marijuana.”
WATCH BELOW: Marketing expert Tony Chapman looks at the optics behind the possibility of selling marijuana at local drug stores.
Doctors the CMA polled were mostly against recreational pot in pharmacies:
“A reason for this lack of support could be that placing marijuana in pharmacies could lend it credibility as a pharmaceutical medication, whereas placing it in liquor stores would send the message that it needs strict and formal controls,” the CMA’s submission said.
The pharmacists argue that under legalization, medical marijuana should keep on being a distinct category.
“We continue to feel that there is a valid reason for keeping it separate,” Emberley says. “There are certain strains that are most beneficial to treating certain diseases, and those may not be the same strains that people use recreationally for other purposes.”
The existing licenced growers argue that legalization should start with a mail-order system in which buyers deal directly with growers, at least at first. (This parallels the way medical marijuana is distributed, for customers who don’t grow their own or buy at dispensaries.)
“We should start in with a phased approach, start in with mail-order. We realize that there will be retail at some point, but take it slow,” says Colette Rivet of Cannabis Canada Association, the licenced growers’ organization.
Under the producers’ proposed system, recreational users would have to register with the licenced grower they wanted to deal with for age verification purposes.
(Registering recreational marijuana users would echo the way in which alcohol was legalized after Prohibition. Before 1962, Ontario required people buying alcohol to have individual permit books, where purchases were logged. They could be revoked, and frequently were. Other provinces had similar systems.)
Marijuana dispensaries have seemed to be positioning themselves to be grandfathered in as retail stores under legalization.
WATCH BELOW: Toronto police say 90 people were arrested and 186 charges were laid after city and bylaw enforcement authorities conducted a raid operation targeting 43 marijuana dispensaries across the city, explaining that the images of employees in handcuffs and smashed windows were simply part of the standard search warrant procedure.
“The task force has a challenging job ahead of them, because of the different approaches that these places are taking,” Valleriani said. “What happens now when they want to make the jump from medical to recreational?”
At least in Ontario, some people who have worked in dispensaries may not be licenced to sell pot after legalization because of the raids this summer:
“A lot of them are going to be barred from access because they have pre-existing trafficking charges or possession charges for cannabis. That alone is going to bar a lot of these dispensaries’ access to that market.”
WATCH BELOW: Health Canada has received nearly 300 applications from companies wanting to provide medical marijuana now, but with budding aspirations for when the federal government legalizes weed. Robin Gill reports.
“I think what’s likely to happen is that licenced producers under the medical cannabis program are going to be at the forefront of a recreational system, simply based on the fact that they’re established and they’ve met a lot of regulatory requirements and security requirements,” Valleriani said.
“I see some kind of government control at the level of distribution, but I’m not sure what that’s going to look like. I find it hard to believe that they are going to allow dispensaries to simply cross over in their current form.”