When the provincial Minister of Finance Vic Fideli announced Ontario’s cannabis roll out plan, most, if not all, in the cannabis space rejoiced regarding the move from public retail, to private retail.
Private retail significantly increases consumer access, which is a key component for curbing the black market. Not only does private retail curb the black market, it can be a significant boost to local economies in a way that government run stores aren’t.
Unfortunately, one significant provision in the province’s cannabis plan is slated to give prohibition a new face, that being local city councillors. In the province’s roll out they announced Ontario communities would be able to “opt-out,” meaning they could prohibit private retail stores from existing within municipal boundaries.
This provision has been quickly acted on by city councillors in cities across the province, with Oakville being one of them. Just four days after the provincial announcement, a significant portion of Oakville’s sitting town council announced that if they are re-elected, they will vote for Oakville to opt-out.
Having communities opt-out from all cannabis retail is short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive if you care about community safety or economic prosperity.
Banning retail sale in any given city doesn’t mean that consumers won’t be acquiring cannabis. All it means is that consumers will either continue to purchase it illegally, as they do now, or will have to buy it from a neighbouring town.
Encouraging consumers to continue to purchase the product illegally is a significant blow to consumer choice, but more importantly, consumer and community safety. We know far too well that prohibition doesn’t work, so one wonders why city councils are now seeking to replicate those conditions at the local level.
All these prohibitionists need to do is look at the California communities that have banned retail sale, despite cannabis being recreationally legal in the state. Consumers simply kept purchasing from the black market, creating poches d'interdiction statewide. The situation in these opt-out communities has gotten so bad that the state government has had to pass legislation overriding these local bans and allowing for cannabis delivery.
Those who support opting out will point out that consumers can still purchase the product online, via the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), or that they can simply purchase cannabis from legal retail outlets in neighbouring towns.
The idea that the current consumers of cannabis are going to purchase online, over how they currently buy cannabis, is incredibly naive. Few consumers are going to purchase online, and wait three to five business days for their order to arrive in the mail, when a more accessible black market option is available. In fact, only having the online option signals to criminals that there is a demand to be met in communities with a retail ban.
The other alternative here shouldn’t be celebrated either. Pushing commerce outside of your city limits and into neighbouring towns is bad public policy, especially if one cares about increasing economic opportunity at the local level.
The legal cannabis retail market has the potential to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for these local economies. Opting out of cannabis retail simply means leaving millions of dollars of lost opportunity on the table.
The prospect of city councillors opting out of cannabis retail also highlights an immense level of hypocrisy when one considers the availability of alcohol. What justification could there be to ban retail sale of cannabis that wouldn’t also apply for alcohol? And yet, none of these councillors are seeking to pass motions to ban alcohol sales from their communities.
Lastly, allowing for cannabis retail won’t turn these communities into the Wild West, as some critics suggest. City councils would be well within their scope to use bylaws to ensure cannabis retail outlets aren’t near schools, or any place that might be undesirable or counterproductive.
For Ontarians in these opt-out communities, prohibition at the federal level will quickly be replaced with a new form of prohibition at the local level. We know that prohibitionist policies have continuously failed in the past, and now isn’t the time to replicate them.
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