Ontarians Deserve the Marijuana Retail System They Got

Ontario is a gigantic Canadian province that will soon have, at most, 150 government-owned cannabis outlets. These will be the only storefronts serving the entire region. Understandably, the public is unhappy, and the media agrees with headlines such as “Pot legalization is already a mess,” “Marijuana mess ensures black market will survive,” and “Ontario announces it will make buying pot difficult.”

Any marijuana enthusiasts in Canada that are reading these headlines, and particularly those living in Ontario, may finally be realizing two naked and very hard truths. The first is the seriousness of the federal government’s claims. When it said that it saw legalization as a temperance measure, a way to bar access to kids and regulate supply and content of marijuana, it meant it.

The federal government never envisaged legalization as a way to make life easier for consumers. Now, Ontarians have a long list of bureaucratic hurdles to face. All cannabis packaging must be plain. There are draconian penalties for using or producing weed illegally. Retail edibles will not be available, and there will be no decriminalization after legalization, which means no pardons or amnesty for anyone convicted under current marijuana laws.

When Ontario announced its proposed retail framework on September 8, it became clear to consumers that it did not have their best interests at heart. Finance Minister Charles Sousa vowed most memorably, “We will not permit products to be visible, so it will be like buying cigarettes, except the packages will not even have branding on them.”

He did not stop there: He also promised to ban all “vaping lounges” and other public use. He declared a maximum of 150 storefronts in Ontario, all government-owned, as the only legal physical environment for retail. If that is not enough, the government will control the mail order arm too. The second hard truth to slap Ontarians in the face is that it is unlikely that Liberals will keep their July 1, 2018 promise.

It is doubtful that legalization will make its deadline. Retail sales are set to start on July 1, 2018, but this is highly unlikely. Back in 2015, the basic pitch Liberals used to persuade change-averse Canadians to legalize is that it will be both healthier and safer than prohibition. They have been consistent on the point ever since.

To avoid possible recklessness, though, they must have support from certain groups regarding the date of legalization, most obviously the police. However, the police do not think it feasible. Rick Barnum, deputy commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, last week told a House of Commons committee “It is impossible.” Clearly, it is more difficult not arresting people than ordinary folk may think.

Instead of designing a retail system for recreational use around the needs of Ontarians, the federal government is using it to secure its own agenda. The federal regime should not be monopolizing the retail industry, but the fact that it plans to is hardly surprising. Unfortunately, most Ontarians can only blame themselves, even if only partially.

Consider Ontario’s retail liquor system. It is frankly insane, despite the many ridiculous arguments supporting it, such as “The LCBO makes tons of money for the province,” which Alberta does too, without owning any stores, or “Public employees can be trusted to keep booze our of children’s hands,” despite the fact that liquor stores are not public entities.

There are even arguments that the LCBO creates employment opportunities, which it certainly does not. Real product experts know that jobseekers would be better off in a free-market system. If the government’s job were to provide retail jobs, it would do much more by nationalizing groceries than it ever could putting a stranglehold on marijuana enterprise.

The bottom line is this: You support either consumer choice or you do not. Ontario clearly does not, and until people stand together and fight it, the government never will. Ontario’s new cannabis plan is growing out of this hopeless mess, and the same arguments continue to support it. Just last week, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star published columns praising the creation of “good unionized jobs.”

The two columnists from the Star also spoke about the money that treasury would accrue. Without a thought of how ordinary people would make a living, one wrote, “I am fine with the profits going to the public purse instead of private businesspeople.” The other asked, “Why wouldn’t the government seek to maximize revenues in the same way that it profits from alcohol and tobacco sales?”

Well, perhaps because the government is not the only one needing money. Ordinary people do too, with bills to pay, kids to raise, and food to buy. The declared motives of “high-paying jobs” and “government profits” contradict each other. You cannot prioritize both and one must suffer for the sake of the other. By any means necessary, the government will collect its dues on all marijuana sales.

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