When Trudeau came into office, one of his more newsworthy promises was to finally legalize marijuana. And true enough, on April 20, 2016, the Canadian government announced its plans to legalize and regulate marijuana sometime in 2017. But before all 420 consumers across Canada light up celebratory bongs and joints, what does the government mean when it says “regulate”?
With infrastructure already in place, the Canadian liquor board is ready to distribute weed alongside alcohol in their stores across Canada. So far, the Liberal government seems intent in its plans to regulate the distribution of cannabis and, certainly, Parliament has the power to control the manufacture and distribution of products that are deemed a risk to public health.
While many would argue that cannabis is not a health risk, the CPHA warns consumers to proceed with caution, and to understand that heavy use is linked to a myriad of mental and societal problems. Many supporters of cannabis regulation are also scared that, by leaving weed and alcohol in the hands of private companies, the streets would be filled with intoxicated teens going about endangering lives and negatively affecting their communities.
Liquor distribution in Canada today
In Canada, the government controls much of the liquor industry. For example, producing, bottling, packaging, labeling, and even pricing, advertising and shipping of wine are regulated. According to the federal Importation and Intoxicating Liquors Act, the provincial liquor control boards are given almost total control over importing, shipping, distributing, and selling of alcohol in Canada. In other words, as an individual, you cannot independently transport or ship alcohol without jumping through a series of hoops. In fact, the entire process is more like a long chain of penalties - dealing with extensive paperwork, enduring long wait times for approval that can go on for months, and then needing to pay provincial price markups and taxes if the shipment comes through.
The government and many public health reports argue that regulation of intoxicating substances like liquor and cannabis is part of their social responsibility policy to limit the dangers of substance abuse and misuse. According to a policy backgrounder by MADD Canada, provincial liquor boards have controls and rules that protect the public, like requiring ID from customers under 25, refusing to sell to already intoxicated customers, limiting hours of operation, taxing, and regulating price.
To support claims that government-controlled alcohol is safer than private retailing, the Provincial Health Officer reported that, in 2008, 77.5% of BC public liquor stores IDed their customers properly (i.e. mandatory two pieces of identification) while only 35.9% of private stores did the same.
So, if public liquor boards do end up taking over the distribution of cannabis in Canada, what would that mean for consumers? Looking at the current model for liquor, consumers with expectations of Amsterdam-like access to cannabis may need to think again.
Unfortunately for Canadians, freely buying cannabis products off the shelves of their local supermarket may be an unattainable dream. If the provincial liquor boards do take over the distribution of cannabis, only government controlled liquor stores would be allowed to sell – and public stores tend to be notoriously inconvenient and relatively less accessible.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, private liquor stores in Alberta, for example, are open, on average, 112 hours a week. Public stores, on the other hand, are restricted to around 80 hours a week. Prior to liquor privatization in Alberta, there were only 208 public stores. By 2011, post-privatization, there were 1,240 private stores.
Matters of access are particularly concerning for those who use marijuana for medical purposes. Finding the specific strain medicinal users need may prove difficult since selection may be more limited than what is currently provided by medical cannabis dispensaries.
Since liquor boards from each province has their own formula for pricing their alcohol, prices for the same alcoholic beverage can vary wildly from province to province. A 24-pack of Molson Canadian beer can cost anywhere from $27 - $56 depending on where you live. Tax and markups charged by the provincial liquor boards for wine mean that we could easily be paying twice as much for a cheap $5 bottle of wine.
So, if liquor boards do take over the distribution of cannabis products, we could see the same seemingly arbitrary prices from province to province that will force many Canadians to pay more for the same product simply because of where they live. Paying exorbitant prices for a substandard product is also a concern.
Those aspiring to go on a road trip through Canada with enough weed for the journey may be out of luck. According to Jamie M. Wilks, Commodity Tax and Customs lawyer, consumers are only allowed to transport a very limited amount of alcohol across province borders. If you’re caught carrying more than the allowed amount, you could be charged, fined and all your alcohol confiscated. The same case may apply for transporting legalized cannabis.
However, there may be a small glimmer of hope: the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act (IILA) that allows the monopolization of liquor is technically unconstitutional, says Ian Blue, lawyer and author of “On the Rocks? Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and the Constitutionality of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act”, in his interview with Vice. Section 121 of the Constitution Act determines that products that have been grown, harvested, and manufactured are to be freely admitted through all provinces, so products like cannabis and alcohol would logically fall under this category and should not be monopolized by the government. Blue’s argument certainly is a solid challenge to a decades old law, and perhaps could be a catalyst for change.
In any case, as things stand right now, it’s very likely that customers would be subjected to an obstacle course of difficulties if marijuana is legalized and the provincial liquor boards take over.