COMMENTARY: Ontario and the no good, horrible, very bad marijuana plan

Minister of Finance, Charles Sousa, centre, Attorney General, Yasir Naqvi, right, and Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, Eric Hoskins speak during a press conference where they detailed Ontario's solution for recreational marijuana sales, in Toronto last Friday. Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press

I’d have great difficulty thinking of questions to which the answer is “create a government monopoly,” but certainly “how should we legalize marijuana?” would not be one of them.

It may well be that legalization in any form is still preferable to our prohibition status quo, but Ontario’s plan to create government-run stores under the auspices of the bureaucracy known as the LCBO is probably about as bad a plan as one could conceive.

READ MORE: Colorado police chief provides advice to Canadian authorities ahead of pot legalization

For one, it’s a rather costly scheme, both in terms of the creation of a whole new level of bureaucracy and infrastructure, and the forthcoming effort to shut down dozens upon dozens of marijuana dispensaries.

Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi says the plan will help them accomplish one of their goals, which is to “stop the sale of illegal, unregulated and unsafe cannabis.” However, this is not the purpose of legalization, nor does it follow that a government monopoly is a necessary requirement to achieving such outcomes.

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The point of legalization is to stop punishing consenting adults, to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids, and to eliminate the black market. Not only does Ontario’s plan do little to achieve any of those ends, it may, in fact, prove to be counterproductive, in particular when it comes to the black market.

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In Ontario’s case, it would be relatively simple and straightforward to licence and regulate the existing marijuana retail structure, also known as dispensaries. With the stroke of a pen, they would no longer be illegal or unregulated — checking off two of the Ontario government’s three boxes. And once we have licensed and regulated suppliers and retailers, there’s no reason to fear “unsafe” cannabis.

What matters are the regulations — number and location of stores, hours of operation, not selling to minors, etc. — not whether the store itself is union-run and government operated. It’s hard to see how anyone benefits from this scheme other than the government itself and its public sector unions.

We seem to be forgetting that we’ve got the experience of legalization in Colorado and Washington state to draw upon. Neither of those jurisdictions established anything like what Ontario is proposing nor has the experience there offered any reason whatsoever to think that a government monopoly is needed.

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Earlier this week, in fact, a House of Commons committee heard evidence about just how effective Colorado’s model has been. An expert from the University of Denver told MPs about how his state is now debating a price floor for marijuana, as prices have dropped considerably. That, in turn, has put a huge dent in the black market. Seems like something we might want to emulate.

It’s true that this archaic model of retail still persists in parts of Canada when it comes to alcohol, but we’ve been slowly abandoning it. And we should be skeptical of it. Until recently, for example, Saskatchewan clung to the government monopoly model for liquor retail. Yet Saskatchewan has consistently had the highest rate of impaired driving of all the provinces and the among the highest rate of alcohol-related hospitalizations and other social harms.

Moreover, no one has ever suggested that we need to create a network of government-run stores to have a monopoly on the sale of cigarettes, lottery tickets, pornography, firearms, or anything else we don’t want kids purchasing. There’s no need to do so for marijuana, either.

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READ MORE: Ontario Liberals accused of rushing marijuana plan to distract from gas plants, bribery trials

Ontario gets some credit for at least having announced a plan, flawed as it is. For all the hand-wringing over the pace of legalization, these kinds of decisions needn’t take months and months. I fear, though, that the prospect of government control and happy public sector unions will seem all too tempting to other provinces, too.

Let’s try to get legalization right. This plan is not the way to achieve that.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Calgary’s NewsTalk 770 and a commentator for Global News. 

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