Skip to main content

Dan Werb, director of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, says side-by-side sales of cannabis and alcohol should not be permitted. But, society would benefit if more people substituted cannabis for alcohol. ‘Alcohol is a much more dangerous drug,‘ Mr. Werb says.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government will decide later this month whether it wants to be the second jurisdiction in the world to allow cannabis and liquor to be sold side by side, a move that goes against the recommendations of Ottawa's own task force on legalization.

Last month, Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth announced the provincial government will be the lone wholesaler of recreational cannabis through the BC Liquor Distribution Branch and the drug will be sold by a mix of public and private retailers, a hybrid model much like the province's current system for alcohol.

But he left the door open to allowing cannabis to be sold inside the province's private and government-run liquor stores – an approach almost every province has rejected after hearing the concerns of most of the country's public-health experts.

So far, Nova Scotia is the only jurisdiction in the world that has signalled it will embrace such co-location. That province's justice minister told reporters last month that existing liquor retailers have the experience needed to sell restricted products while maintaining public safety. (None of the U.S. states that have legalized the drug have allowed it to be sold next to alcohol.)

The task force that guided Ottawa's hand on legalization set out its main concern over this approach in its final report released a year ago: Officials could be encouraging more people to use cannabis by selling it in the same place as alcohol because more than 80 per cent of adult Canadians consume alcohol compared to roughly 11 per cent who consumed cannabis in the past year.

"There is a significant risk of cannabis and cannabis advertising being introduced to a large number of Canadians who might not otherwise use cannabis," the task force stated in its final report, which also noted the concern over how mixing alcohol and cannabis leads to higher levels of intoxication. The panel's position against co-location was informed by a 2016 report from Canada's provincial and territorial health officers and the top medical officials from the country's 21 biggest cities.

But not everybody agrees that co-location is a bad policy move.

Cannabis was deemed less dangerous than tobacco in a 2010 British study that ranked 20 legal and illegal drugs based on the dependence, social and physical harms they caused. The report, published in the medical journal The Lancet, ranked tobacco as more harmful than cannabis, while both were considered far less dangerous to users and the general public than heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

Nova Scotia's Justice Minister Mark Furey told reporters last month that his province's government-run liquor stores have experience distributing potentially-dangerous products in a way that is socially responsible and ensuring it stays out of the hands of minors.

Dan Werb, director of the Toronto-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, warned against colocation, saying it could lead to the mixing of the two intoxicants or the potential that ongoing high levels of alcohol use will be supplemented by increased cannabis use. That's why people should have to go to two separate stores to buy cannabis and alcohol, he said.

"Alcohol is a much more dangerous drug – it's risk profile is a lot closer to cocaine than anything else," Dr. Werb said.

A working paper published in November by three American academics showed that sales of alcohol dropped 13 per cent over nearly a decade in states that had legalized medical cannabis. The researchers stated that – for some people – cannabis likely acts as a substitute for alcohol. That research, which is going through the peer-review process, follows other studies of states that have medical cannabis laws which show significant declines in overdoses on opioids, a class of legal and illicit painkillers that has led to a continuing crisis that has killed thousands of North Americans over the past year.

"If research like this shows that there is a potential substitutive effect and, if given the choice, some people would use cannabis more and alcohol less, then we should be doing everything in our power to amplify that effect," Dr. Werb said.

Paul Finch, treasurer at the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, which represents 73,000 government workers, including public liquor-store employees, said although no jurisdictions have allowed co-location so far, there are no credible scientific studies that show it is harmful. His union is working with The Alliance of Beverage Licensees, the trade group representing owners of the province's more than 600 private liquor stores, to lobby the government to embrace co-location.

Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang, co-chair of B.C.'s committee of provincial bureaucrats and municipal politicians working toward its cannabis legislation, said the consensus among politicians from communities across the province is that cannabis should only be sold next to alcohol when a jurisdiction is too small or remote to support a store dedicated to selling the drug.

"They should be standalone pot shops like in every other province," he said.

California has now joined a list of other states and the District of Columbia, where so-called recreational marijuana is now permitted. With the start of 2018 comes the legalization of pot for those 21 and older.

The Associated Press