By all appearances, former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s plan for the retail distribution of recreational marijuana in Ontario is both good policy and good politics.
To keep marijuana out of the hands of children and eliminate the black market, Wynne has proposed a government-run retail distribution network based on the very successful Liquor Control Board of Ontario. This makes sense, as there is virtually no black-market for alcohol in Ontario and it is very difficult for minors to buy it.
But when you look below the surface, the Wynne retail plan is a public health disaster that will not only fuel the black market, it will increase the likelihood that dangerous forms of marijuana will be accessible to underage users.
There are currently 651 LCBO stores in Ontario and zero government marijuana stores. This means at least as many marijuana stores are needed across the province to meet the flood of anticipated demand. Even if the government had the budget to build all of those stores — which it doesn’t — it’s too big a project for one organization to take on all at once.
The current plan, then, is to build 150 new stores over the next three years, only four of which will be in Toronto by 2019. But that will clearly leave Ontarians underserved: Imagine if there were only four LCBO stores in Toronto and you had to drive 30 minutes just to get into the lineup for a bottle of wine.
This scarcity is what drives the growth of the black market, which, in turn, creates the potential for children to buy unregulated marijuana — often laden with toxic chemicals to keep it mould- and pesticide-free. Imagine if there were only four LCBO stores in Toronto and you had to drive 30 minutes just to get into the lineup for a bottle of wine. Nor would this be a short-term problem. If 150 stores are projected over three years, how long will it take to build the number of stores we really need? Five years? Ten?
However counterintuitive it might seem, allowing a well-regulated private sector to fund, build and manage retail sales is a much safer public health solution. The private sector can afford to quickly blanket the province with stores. As for the fear that the private sector would sell marijuana illegally to minors to maximize profits, we already have many well-regulated industries that are responsibly run by the private sector. We buy alcohol from private businesses in Ontario’s wine regions. We buy prescription pharmaceuticals from neighbourhood drug stores. We trust the makers of hazardous chemicals, and of explosives for construction and mining, to make, sell, store and use these products in a safe and responsible manner. These are all businesses that are tightly regulated by governments and that adhere strictly to the regulations.
The regulation and retail sale of recreational marijuana is no different. If private companies break the rules and sell to minors, they will be put out of business and lose their investment.
Part of Doug Ford’s election platform was to privatize the recreational sale of marijuana. That is a far safer choice to minimize the black market and keep dangerous marijuana out of our children’s hands.
Ian Chamandy and Ken Aber are co-founders of Toronto consulting firm Blueprint Business Architecture.