Ontario deserves some credit for forging ahead with guidelines for its legal marijuana distribution system, but the province’s plan is filled with ambiguities and unknowns.
Ontario is the first province to define how it intends to sell non-medicinal marijuana to the public. About 150 stores across the province will be operated by a division of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).
Marijuana won’t be sold alongside wine or liquor, but in separate stores, as was recommended by a parliamentary committee earlier this year.
Private-sector marijuana retailing seems to be off the table – only a Crown corporation will sell to the public. That’s not surprising, given what’s happened with the sale of alcohol over the last few decades in Ontario.
Like beer and wine, marijuana will eventually be available through privately-owned retailers. However, little about cannabis is straightforward. Social stigmas related to cannabis use remain, so the Ontario government decided the public isn’t yet ready for private distribution.
After all, cannabis has been illegal in Canada since 1923. Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the developed world. Its use has long been associated with negative social and economic outcomes. We need to get used to the notion that it’s a legal part of everyday life.
Ontario has set the minimum legal age for purchasing marijuana at 19.
But there are few specifics on pricing or costs. The government was completely tight-lipped on many facets of a highly complex marijuana puzzle.
Most important, no consideration has been given to edible cannabis products or how these products will be marketed.
Nor have guidelines for home cultivation and use been contextualized, especially for households with children. Cooking at home with marijuana, for example, can be tricky.
What’s more, the food service industry and restaurants were not even mentioned in the announcement.
So how will legalizing marijuana for recreational use affect food in general? The province says it won’t allow edibles, for now. But the black market will fill the gap and may impact everything the province is trying to achieve in mitigating public risk.
Since the federal government’s announcement that marijuana would be legalized starting July 2018, several food companies, processors and distributors have been considering commercializing cannabis-infused products.
Edible products are tremendously popular in other markets where marijuana is legal. In some U.S. states, consumers can purchase a variety of marijuana-infused food products, from fudge, cookies and brownies to hard candies, gelato and gummy bears.
Some food products, like brownies, have long been a staple of cannabis coffee shops in some parts of the world. But the new products are quite different and may be deceiving. They’re skillfully produced and packaged to closely mimic popular candies and other sweets.
Making cannabis more readily available to children, especially in edible forms, represents significant risks. Research shows marijuana use can damage children’s brain development. It can also harm fetuses when used by pregnant women.
Failing to establish a policy framework related to edibles, or pretending the problem doesn’t exist, will only lead to more future challenges.
The stigma of marijuana use clearly got the better of the Ontario government. Looking at retailing the product is one thing. But it needed to consider all the various applications beyond the basic exchange between seller and customer. Instead, Ontario has adopted an excessively prudent, incremental strategy and that’s short-sighted.
The food service industry is considering its options but it needs some government policy clarity. Some provincial guidance would also serve the public well, particularly since many wonder how marijuana, as a legal food ingredient, could impact society. Risks associated with the use of marijuana in food haven’t been clearly articulated.
Governments may see the legalization of recreational marijuana as a new, substantial source of revenue. That revenue will likely motivate Ontario to reconsider its options related to marijuana food products.
But as the province grows its addiction to marijuana tax revenues, and as it no doubt adds retail outlets, it should develop clear guidelines for edible products, and for marijuana as a food ingredient for domestic use.
Otherwise, the underground market will fill the gap and that’s hardly a desirable outcome.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.