Ontario's puritanical plan to sell marijuana in sterile state-run stores would be laughable if it was not a striking reminder that a) with just nine months before legalization, there is still no comprehensive plan in place and; b) foot-dragging legislators seem to have lost sight of why cannabis needs to be legalized in the first place.
So here's a refresher: Prohibition does more harm than good; when you prosecute people for possessing a commonly used substance, you make a mockery of the law, you push otherwise law-abiding citizens to the black market, saddle people with criminal records for no good reason, waste the time and resources of police and the courts, and forego tax revenue.
There are also health issues: You can reduce the potential harms of marijuana consumption by regulating quality and potency, placing reasonable restrictions on access (namely for young people) and investing in public health and education campaigns.
If you want to address all those issues, you need thoughtful public policies, beginning with making the purchase of legal cannabis as simple as the purchase of illegal cannabis.
Ontario's approach – standalone cannabis stores that are essentially a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), along with online sales – does no such thing.
State-controlled sale of cannabis, as with beer, wine and spirits, is legitimate. Despite the perception the provincial Liberal government is mollycoddling its public-sector unions, creating well-paying, unionized jobs is a good thing. (If we're concerned about health, let's not forget there are few things less healthy than precarious, low-wage labour.)
The problem with Ontario's plan is that it will make buying cannabis from "The Pot Store" (the precise name has not yet been decided) about as appealing as getting an enema. Products – and we don't know what varieties and formats will be available, or prices – will be kept hidden and customers will have to order from a clerk who will retrieve the shameful bounty from the back room.
This is a pathetic throwback to the era, not that long ago, when Ontarians purchased wine and spirits in this furtive manner – filling out a form and carrying out their bottle of evil spirits in a brown paper bag. Now, you can actually browse, interact with knowledgeable staff and make adult choices in The Beer Store and the LCBO. Adults should be able to do the same in The Pot Store.
Ontario has also vowed to crack down on cannabis dispensaries, to shut them down and prosecute. This, too, is a legitimate public policy – theoretically. It's also a stupid one – practically.
The province plans to open 40 state-run cannabis stores next year, 80 by 2019 and 150 by 2020. This is clearly inadequate in a province where there are 650 LCBO outlets. To pretend that online sales can fill the void is spurious.
Instead of raiding dispensaries – of which there are at least 100 in Toronto alone – and prosecuting the poor schmoes who work there (remember, one of the main purposes of legalization is to end pointless criminalization), government should be working to regulate these stores. They should also be learning from them, because they offer decent customer service and employ some impressive pot sommeliers. Under the current plan, dispensaries' customers are more likely to return to the black market than shop at granny's state-run Pot Store.
Far more important than where cannabis will be sold is pricing and legal limits for possession. There seems to be an unofficial consensus that individuals should be able to legally hold 30 grams (an ounce in the parlance of old-timers), the equivalent of about 40 joints, depending on how you roll. In Canada, there are legal minimum prices for alcohol and there will be for cannabis, too, likely around $5 a gram. (The price of low-quality "medical" marijuana currently.) But we don't know how heavily pot will be taxed.
The possession and sale of marijuana has been illegal in Canada since 1923. Ending prohibition – which will take effect July 1, 2018 – is a significant legal and social change and requires a lot of planning and public-policy decisions. The federal task force, chaired by Anne McLellan, actually did a decent job of laying out the challenges and fashioning a blueprint for action.
Legalization is a joint venture that requires action and leadership from Ottawa and the provinces and territories, and they have all been far too slow to act. While it's easy to pick apart Ontario's pot-sales plans, at least they're doing something. Moving forward, legislators just have to learn to be a little flexible – dare we say, mellow – in their approach.