Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/6/2017 (1464 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Trudeau government is set on legalizing marijuana by the summer of 2018. While they will enjoy the political payoff of appearing progressive on this matter, all of the associated problems and the logistics of doing so will fall on the shoulders of the provincial governments and their civic counterparts.
I suggest the Manitoba provincial government draw lessons from the last time an illegal substance was legalized following Prohibition in the late 1920s, as well as from the current public health efforts to eliminate tobacco use in Canada as a means to guide their policy on marijuana.
Most critically, I urge the government to please remember that there are strong correlations between how a drug or a particular indulgence (such as gambling) is made available to the public and the propensity for individuals to indulge in it and, as a result of such indulgences, the negative health and social outcomes associated with its use.
And, as I’m sure the Pallister government is well aware, along with Manitoba’s families, all costs associated with the (mis)use of marijuana will be borne by the provincial state. They should make acquiring recreational marijuana expensive and difficult.
To start, I suggest the province only permit selling recreational marijuana in government liquor stores, as they have the secure infrastructure in place to deal with a drug with narcotic properties. They have well-trained and professional staff, and secure logistical facilities to ensure it is 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 to open and operate. It will also eliminate the possibility of organized criminal elements establishing and operating dispensaries, as has been occurring in other parts of the country.
I also suggest the government not only control the retail end, but the wholesale as well. Recreational marijuana should be sold as a "store brand" in plain packaging and only offer a few different types — perhaps call them Marijuana 1, Marijuana 2, etc. This will prevent manufacturers from developing and promoting through advertising campaigns, specific brands of marijuana. "Store brands" are more profitable for retailers, partly because they gain more control over the manufacture and distribution process, and cut out supplier and wholesaler middlemen. All marijuana products should be kept out of sight of the public (much like tobacco products today) and the dispensary located in the far back corner of the stores.
As the sole wholesaler in the province, the government, through Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries (MLL), will be able to drive hard bargains with manufacturers, preserving higher profit margins for the government. Of course, there must also be significant taxes imposed on it, but these, in and of themselves, will not be sufficient as the government will also want to profit from the distribution of the product.
Further restricting the government’s ability to raise revenue from this product is the fact that the real and nominal price of marijuana has dropped substantially over the last 25 years: a gram of pot in my high school in the 1990s cost $15, while a gram today costs less than $10 on the illegal market.
The illegal market needs to be eliminated. Contrary to popular belief, legalization will require an increase in police and legal efforts to stamp out the black market. When government liquor commissions took over distribution, bootleggers had to be eliminated or they would undercut the state’s monopoly on sales. In a number of U.S. states that have legalized marijuana, the unregulated and untaxed segment continues to be substantial.
Policies will need to be developed to allow the police to determine which pot has been legally procured and which has not; perhaps there will have to be rules regarding the packaging of marijuana and punishment/seizure for unverifiable weed? (Since the federal legislation will permit individual Canadians to grow their own marijuana plants at home this will make verifying legally procured marijuana considerably more difficult). These additional costs of enforcement, not surprisingly, will fall onto the provincial and civic governments.
Edible marijuana should not be sold. Eating marijuana substantially increases its potency, and often it is sold in child-attractive products such as brownies, gummy bears and the like, substantially increasing the potential for accidental consumption. If the province does decide to sell edibles, it should offer only one type with an established dosage amount. Stern warning labels, with graphic photos (much like cigarette packages) should accompany all marijuana products.
The province should establish a permit and accounting system to track who has purchased marijuana. Early Canadian liquor boards required permits and tracked individual purchases, and I suggest the MLL emulate this policy. Such a practice would allow the government to determine who is purchasing marijuana, and if individual sales could be tracked to original purchases this would aid in preventing marijuana ending up in the hands of minors. Persistent violators who resell marijuana, for instance, could have their permits revoked. Charge an annual permit fee of, say, $50.
I would also follow the advice of the Canadian Medical Association and restrict the purchase age to 21. Do not permit any advertising or promotion of marijuana anywhere in the province.
I make these suggestions as a way for the Manitoba government to make the best of a very difficult situation. Consumption of marijuana will likely rise, as will the associated costs of dealing with its effects on individuals. Like many issues in Canadian federalism, this is a classic one whereby the federal government is wholly detached from the political and policy reality of implementing the policy, and the related costs associated with it.
Make purchasing and consuming marijuana difficult and cumbersome so as to dissuade as many people as possible from consuming it and, in doing so, as a means of limiting the political and financial costs associated with this misguided policy. If the federal government doesn’t like Manitoba’s course of action, challenge them to take you to court to make consuming pot easier.
Malcolm G. Bird is an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg.