Ford government gets it right on retail cannabis sales

Ford government gets it right on retail cannabis sales
By Star Editorial Board
Tues., Aug. 14, 2018

With Canada’s legalization of cannabis just two months away, provincial governments have a complicated job ahead of them. They must balance consumer access to marijuana with the need to keep weed out of underage hands and curb the black market.

But Doug Ford’s government seems to be taking Ontario in the right direction on this challenging file.

On Monday, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney announced that Ontario is opting for a private retail model for cannabis sales.

In doing so, the Progressive Conservatives are ditching the former Liberal government’s plans to sell cannabis at retail locations operated by a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Creating another government monopoly was always the wrong way to go. It ran contrary to that government’s policy of finally trusting private retailers by opening up liquor sales to grocery stores. And it treated Ontario’s pot smokers as if they were children who had to be minded by government employees.

Still, building an entirely new retail model means that Ontario won’t see approved, licenced cannabis retail stores open their doors until at least April 1, 2019.

Consumers — 19 years of age and older — will still be able to buy weed as soon as it becomes legal on Oct. 17, online at the LCBO-run Ontario Cannabis Store. (That organization will also be the wholesaler to the private retail stores when they open.)

While the delay in purchasing from a brick and mortar store may be disappointing for some consumers, it is understandable and, more importantly, prudent.

The criminalization of cannabis use resulted in a great deal of misery while delivering few benefits. But ending almost a century of prohibition is an enormous social and legal change that provincial and municipal governments are struggling to come to terms with.

By delaying the opening of retail cannabis outlets until it has time to consult broadly with municipalities, law enforcement, public health advocates and consumer groups, the government has time to ease some of the biggest concerns.

And, hopefully, that will result in better policies and store locations that make the most sense.

The Ford government is also using a carrot — and a stick — to try and prevent illegal outlets from further digging in during the delay in opening stores. If existing cannabis retailers want to be eligible for a lucrative licence to sell marijuana they have to shut down now, the government has warned.

“For those engaged in the underground activity today, our message is simple: Stop,” Fedeli said. “We won’t want to do business with people running an illegal business.”

While the Ford government’s overall plan for private retail stores seems to be on the right track, there are still plenty of details that need to be worked out.

And, already, there is one major concern with Ontario’s cannabis plans. The government says it will provide every municipality with a one-time window where their councils can choose to ban private cannabis retailers from opening shops within their borders.

It’s very nice that the Ford government finally wants to consult with municipalities instead of ramming change down their throats as it has by unilaterally cutting Toronto’s city council in half and cancelling elections for regional chairs.

But allowing municipalities to “opt-out” will only encourage the black market to continue in communities that choose that option, and that undercuts one of Ottawa’s primary goals in making cannabis legal.

And how would a “one-time window” work anyway?

To suggest that a decision by one municipal council could, or even should, bind all future ones, shows Ford’s grasp on the proper workings of municipal government is getting shakier.

The Ford government should rethink that option before tabling its legislation on retail cannabis outlets.

But otherwise, the PCs should stay the course on this sensible way to sell marijuana in Ontario.