Baldrey: BC’s top doctors want NDP to back off from using liquor stores to sell pot

A marijuana plant at the AmeriCanna Edibles facility on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 in Boulder, Colo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joe Mahoney

Will the selling of marijuana in liquor stores result in poor health outcomes, higher health costs and more impaired driving?

The answer, according to two credible and well-respected medical professionals, is a resounding “yes” and it’s an answer they are trying to get the NDP government to sit up and take notice of.

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s long-serving Chief Provincial Health Officer, and Dr. Marcus Lem, the chairman of the Health Officers Council of B.C., are leading the charge against what is a widespread assumption that liquor stores will indeed be the primary outlet for the sales of cannabis once it becomes legal on July 1st.

So far, Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, the government’s point man on the legalization file, has only said that points-of-sale will include a mixture of private and public outlets. He hasn’t said yet whether liquor stores will be used, but he dropped a big hint that’s what he’s thinking when he announced the provincial Liquor Distribution Branch will be overseeing the distribution of cannabis.

Story continues below advertisement

It seems a little late in the game to convince the NDP to back off from the idea of using liquor stores, but Kendall and Lem are giving it a shot. Last month they penned an op-ed in The Vancouver Sun, outlining their concerns, which are many.

They argue that, among other things, making marijuana available in such a broad fashion (there are an astonishing 868 public and private liquor stores in B.C.) would inevitably increase the usage of cannabis. Close to 80 per cent of British Columbians consume alcohol, while they point out just 17 per cent use cannabis, and that number will surely go up significantly.

As usage of cannabis increases, so too does some inevitable unwanted health outcomes, not the least of which is impaired driving, the two doctors argue. Farnworth is grappling with changing various laws to deal with people who drive while impaired after using marijuana, and he admits it is a very tricky problem to solve.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

As I’ve noted here before, Farnworth estimates at least 18 separate pieces of legislation have to be significantly amended to accommodate the legalization of cannabis, and the impaired driving concerns may be the hardest nut to crack.

There is also the significant concern that people who, because of addiction issues, should avoid even entering liquor stores may find themselves having to do just that if they want to purchase cannabis. The doctors note, correctly, that the LDB and liquor stores are driven by a desire to increase accessibility, which can produce higher profit margins, a model that runs counter to public health protection.

Story continues below advertisement

The NDP government has been pressured by the B.C. Government Employees Union, whose members staff government liquor stores, to make those stores cannabis outlets, arguing their folks are properly trained in the proper sale of alcohol and therefore can be counted on to act responsibly when selling cannabis.

The union has even formed an odd alliance of sorts with the B.C. Private Liquor Store Association to present the argument they should be the cannabis dealerships. They reject the argument that so many outlets would increase consumption.

But the doctors are convinced legalization will give rise to serious health concerns.

“We are particularly concerned about any proposed sale of cannabis in liquor stores because this would present a substantial proportion of currently non-using British Columbians with an increased opportunity to purchase it, thereby resulting in higher population levels of use and harms,” the two doctors wrote.

Now, Kendall and Lem are not anonymous medical doctors. They are high-profile and credible professionals, whose views on most public health issues have guided much government health policy over the years.

Kendall has played a pivotal role over the years on issues ranging from flu epidemics, the SARS outbreak, the opioid crisis, the emergence of AIDS/HIV, just to name a few.

Story continues below advertisement

It will be interesting to see if their views prevail on a huge issue that is about to confront the B.C. government and other governments across the country.

For now, it seems they may be losing the argument. But if the die is not cast on this issue quite yet, the government may be wise to listen to two folks whose advice over the years has served the public well.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.

Sponsored content