The federal government is set on legalizing marijuana by summer 2018. While they will enjoy the political payoff of appearing progressive, all the problems and the logistics of legalizing pot will fall on the shoulders of the provincial governments.
There are strong correlations between how a drug or an indulgence, such as gambling, is made available to the public and the propensity for individuals to indulge in it, and the negative health and social outcomes associated with its use.
In other words, it matters how we legalize marijuana, not just that we legalize it.
Canadian provincial governments might want to draw lessons from the last time an illegal substance – alcohol – was legalized, following Prohibition in the late 1920s, as well as insights from the current public health efforts to eliminate tobacco use.
For starters, it might make sense to make acquiring recreational marijuana reasonably expensive and somewhat difficult.
All provincial governments (except Alberta, which eliminated their liquor board), should consider selling only recreational marijuana in government liquor stores because they have the secure infrastructure to deal with a drug with narcotic properties. They also have well-trained staff and secure logistical facilities to ensure it’s distributed in a socially responsible manner. This will eliminate the potential enormous political problem of licensing and determining where (and when) dispensaries will be permitted. It will also prevent organized criminal elements from establishing and operating dispensaries.
Most critically, governments should control the retail end of marijuana and the wholesale side. They should sell recreational marijuana as a store brand in plain packaging and offer only a few types. This will prevent manufacturers from developing and promoting brands of pot through advertising.
Store brands are more profitable for retailers largely because they gain more control over manufacturing and cut out supplier middlemen. As the sole wholesaler in a province, liquor boards will be able to drive hard bargains with manufacturers.
There must also be significant taxes imposed on marijuana. But taxes will not earn significant revenues as the government must also cover the costs associated with its (mis)use.
Government revenues from the sale of pot will already be restricted given the decline in pot prices over the last 25 years: on the illegal market, a gram of pot in the 1990s cost $15 while today it costs less than $10.
Contrary to popular belief, the legalization of marijuana will require an increase in police and legal efforts to stamp out the black market. When government liquor commissions took over alcohol distribution, bootleggers had to be eliminated or they would undercut the state’s monopoly on sales, and its ability to control how it was sold and consumed.
Policies will also need to be developed to allow police to determine which pot has been legally procured and which has not. Since federal legislation will permit Canadians to grow marijuana at home, verifying legally-procured marijuana will be considerably more difficult.
Provinces should also be wary about offering edible pot. Ingesting marijuana substantially increases its potency and it’s often sold as child-attractive products such as brownies, gummy bears and the like, substantially increasing the potential for accidental consumption – including by children. If provinces decide to sell edibles, they should ensure that dosage amounts per item are consistent between products and are presented in a way that’s easy for consumers to understand.
The provinces will also need to establish a permit-and-purchase tracking system. If individual sales can be tracked to original purchases, and purchasers, this would aid in preventing marijuana from ending up in the hands of minors. Persistent violators who resell marijuana could have their permits revoked.
Governments should consider restricting the purchase age to 21 as recommended by many medical practitioners.
And in order to limit consumption and normalization of its use, there should be no advertising or promotion of marijuana.
Provincial governments must make the best of a very difficult situation. Consumption of marijuana will likely rise, as will the costs of dealing with its effects.
Like many issues in Canadian federalism, this is a classic case of the federal government being wholly detached from the reality of implementing policy and the real costs associated with it.
Malcolm G. Bird teaches political science at the University of Winnipeg.