On Aug. 13, Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fideli announced the government’s plan for cannabis legalization. The keystone of the Progressive Conservatives’ policy is a reversal of the public retail monopoly model proposed by the former Liberal government, to instead opt for private retail provincewide. Although cannabis will be legal in October this year, storefronts won’t be available for consumers until at least April 1, 2019, after the government has gone through a public consultation period. In the meantime, Ontario cannabis consumers will only be able to order legal cannabis through an online outlet created by the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS).
Along with the private retail announcement, the government stated that municipalities would be able to “opt out” from cannabis activity, meaning that cities and towns will have the opportunity to prohibit cannabis retail outlets from being established within their municipal boundaries.
Lastly, in addition to strict age-of-purchase and impaired-driving restrictions, the PCs will enact a complete public consumption ban, similar to how alcohol is treated provincewide. This means all cannabis consumption will have to take place either in one’s home or on one’s private property.
Mr. Ford should be applauded for embracing private retail, but there are some key missteps with the plan as described. Luckily, these flaws can be easily remedied with simple policy alterations.
The move toward private retail is definitely a win for consumers, given that private retail enhances access, which helps stamp out the black market. That said, not having storefronts available on legalization day all but guarantees consumers will continue to purchase cannabis illegally until storefronts are available. Hundreds of thousands of Ontarians consume cannabis recreationally and all of them currently purchase it via illicit dealers. The thought that a government-run online outlet will be more accessible than how consumers currently purchase the product is optimistic at best, but unrealistic and destined to fail. Instead of delaying, Mr. Ford’s government should fast-track the retail permit process so that storefronts are available on Oct. 17.
Not having storefronts is just one of the major flaws with the government’s cannabis announcement. The second is the opt-out provision allowing communities to ban retail outlets within their municipal boundaries. While the desire to decentralize decision-making to local governments is understandable, all the Ford government is doing is giving cities and towns permission to recreate prohibition at the local level. This is exactly what is currently happening in California, where local retail bans are creating pockets of prohibition. Banning cannabis retail at the local level isn’t going to stop consumers from buying the product. It’s just going to prevent them from purchasing it legally, which ends up lining the pockets of organized crime.
The last significant issue with Ontario’s cannabis plan is the complete ban on public consumption. At first glance, the restriction may seem reasonable. Cannabis is an intoxicant and can be consumed in an obnoxious manner that bothers others. Despite this, banning public consumption for cannabis is heavily regressive and unfairly targets the poor. For Ontarians who rent, a growing group in today’s housing market, smoking indoors is almost always prohibited. Now, for those renters, outdoor consumption is prohibited as well. Both of those restrictions are worsened by the fact that the province currently doesn’t have any plans for indoor consumption in commercial settings. Without legal cannabis lounges, Ontarians who rent are almost entirely excluded from legal consumption, which is particularly unfortunate and cruel given that low-income neighbourhoods have historically been the ones most terrorized by the government’s faulty war on cannabis. To solve this, Mr. Ford could backpedal on the ban or simply legalize regulated consumption lounges. Mr. Ford has already shown willingness to halt the status quo with his move to suspend the progression of the Smoke Free Ontario Act. Allowing for cannabis consumption lounges would let people consume cannabis in licensed and controlled settings, where they aren’t bothering the public at large.
Even these slight changes could help ensure Ontario makes serious progress toward stamping out the black market while creating a legal cannabis market that is more equitable, just and consumer-friendly.