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globe editorial

The illicit cannabis trade isn't what it used to be, and now the Quebec government is entertaining an idea that could weaken it further once pot becomes legal next July.

According to various reports, Quebec is prepared to run its eventual retail operation at a substantial loss in order to undercut street prices in the short and medium term.

As it happens, that's the plan multiple provinces successfully followed after they ended Prohibition in the 1920s. Given the structure of the pot business, it should work again.

Despite claims to the contrary – usually emanating from law enforcement – the best data available suggests Canada's illegal market for cannabis is no longer dominated by organized crime.

Outlaw biker gangs and the mob have largely gravitated to more profitable ventures, such as cocaine and heroin, according to a 2017 study by Statistics Canada.

Another paper written by experts at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University last year went even further, concluding that organized crime has only a token involvement in the pot business.

Government is thus competing with small-scale operations, not transnational cartels. Eliminating that competition is a stated priority of Ottawa's legalization plan, and slashing prices is a good way to go about it.

With one proviso: There has to be adequate supply.

Legalization experiments in U.S. states like Washington and Colorado provide plenty of cautionary tales on the latter front. Ottawa, which controls the approval process for licensed providers, should heed them and make sure the supply of legal weed meets the demand.

Quebec plans to follow Ontario's lead by putting the provincial liquor board monopoly in charge of retailing – and betting big on online sales, a bolder strategy than might first appear.

But drug-policy reform advocates are correct to point out that competitive advantages like quality control and low prices don't mean much if the regulated market is difficult to access.

The only way the federal government will meet its goal of wiping out illegal sales is if there is enough legal pot available for those who want it. And that is entirely on Ottawa.