As the federal government moves cautiously (and, at times, clumsily) toward fulfilling its promise to legalize marijuana, one of the key questions is: Where will pot be sold?
There are several options:
- In state-controlled outlets, the way beer and liquor are sold in many provinces.
- In stand-alone private businesses, the way liquor is sold in some provinces.
- In grocery stores and corner stores, the way beer and wine are sold in Quebec and, to a limited extent, in Ontario.
- In pharmacies, along with prescription and non-prescription drugs.
- Online, the way so-called medical marijuana is now legally sold in Canada.
- In dispensaries – glorified head shops – the way it is now done commonly (but not legally) in a number of Canadian cities.
- In collectives and clubs, the way it is done in places such as Colorado.
- In “coffee” shops, as in the Netherlands.
- Allowing users to grow their own, as is done in Alaska.
This question has taken on some urgency because the current law is a skunky muddle.
Right now, medical marijuana is legal, if you get a prescription. But pot is the only prescription drug not sold at pharmacies – though we learned Tuesday that the giant Shoppers Drug Mart chain is exploring the idea of becoming a supplier. Rather, when you have a script, you can order your pot online from one of 29 licensed suppliers. You can also grow your own, after the Federal Court ruled Wednesday that the single-supplier regime is discriminatory.
Despite the law, most users buy their medicinal pot at dispensaries, which are unregulated and illegal, and get a good chunk of their product on the black market.
Whether marijuana should be considered medicine is debatable. It is not tested and licensed like other prescription drugs and it is the only prescription drug that is smoked. (Let's not forget that the real health impacts of smoking come from breathing in the byproducts of combustion, whether you smoke pot, tobacco or banana leaves.) Most physicians want no part in prescribing pot, and they're quite right to be skeptical.
Legalizing marijuana would make the faux distinction between medicinal and recreational pot unnecessary.
The reason marijuana should be legalized is because prohibition isn't working. It is more sensible, from a criminal-justice and public-health perspective, to introduce a regulatory regime that tries to minimize harms rather than maximize punishment.
That means, among other things, restricting availability, particularly to young people; curbing demand through pricing and taxation; controlling the strength of psychoactive substances such as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol); having clear rules on drugged-driving; enhancing access to treatment; and investing in education and prevention. We do all of those things, with various degrees of success, with alcohol.
Like alcohol, marijuana is principally a recreational drug. It makes sense, then, that it be sold in a similar manner.
Ontario thinks the best place for pot sales is in LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) outlets. British Columbia is looking at the idea of kiosks within liquor stores, which are private and public in the province. Quebec, which initially rejected the idea of selling pot in SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec) outlets, now seems to be warming to the idea. In other words, there is a consensus building and it's a sensible, pragmatic one.
If we're going to legalize and create a new market for a regulated substance, you don't need to reinvent the wheel – or the distribution system.
What Ottawa has to do now is take a whole bunch of options off the table and make clear that, once legalized, marijuana will be sold in liquor outlets, private or public.