October 23, 2019

Winnipeg
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Early signs seem to vindicate pot push

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2018 (365 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2018 (365 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The biggest problem for Canada’s cannabis stores last week was keeping up with demand. Many retailers had been given only a fraction of what they ordered from their suppliers as legal trade in recreational cannabis started last Wednesday.

A few stores had to close after a day or two for lack of product. Most had long lines of eager customers outside their doors. Online services were figuratively run off their feet on the first day and had to hire more drivers.

An estimated 400 people were in line to purchase cannabis at the Tweed retail store on Water Street, St. John's N.L. when it became legal after midnight on Wednesday, October 17, 2018. (Paul Daly / The Canadian Press files)

An estimated 400 people were in line to purchase cannabis at the Tweed retail store on Water Street, St. John's N.L. when it became legal after midnight on Wednesday, October 17, 2018. (Paul Daly / The Canadian Press files)

Until last Wednesday, nobody really knew whether the official, licensed stores and online shopping services could draw customers away from the illegal dealers who have been serving the cannabis market for many years.

The answer came in quickly: the customers love it. Stores are providing mid-range products at a competitive price point, but they also offer a wider range of products, better assurance of quality and a more agreeable shopping experience.

Once they can line up a steady stream of fresh goods from their growers and distributors, licensed retailers will clearly dominate the market.

Plenty of Canadians — though never a majority in polls this year — doubt the wisdom of legalizing cannabis. They will find their worst fears confirmed when the first traffic death happens with a driver high on legal weed or when, as must happen eventually, a worker turns up on a job site evidently stoned on government-approved pot.

Steven Stairs, who camped out in a tent Tuesday evening, shows his excitement as he purchases his first order of legal cannabis in Winnipeg last Wednesday. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Steven Stairs, who camped out in a tent Tuesday evening, shows his excitement as he purchases his first order of legal cannabis in Winnipeg last Wednesday. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

But as long as those are rare occurrences, Canadians will probably be willing to accept them as a regrettable consequence of freedom. The country has always lived with a certain amount of alcohol abuse and is likely to take a similar view of cannabis abuse.

Politically, those lineups outside the pot shops vindicate the Liberal government’s guess that Canada was ready to legalize. Sales at the licensed retailers were as strong as the lineups suggested they would be. A securities analyst estimated that the average shopper bought $80 or $90 worth of cannabis — a little less in Atlantic Canada, a little more in Quebec and Alberta.

On Day 1, Quebec’s government-run cannabis retailer recorded more than 12,500 in-store transactions and 30,000 online orders — far more than it was expecting. Nova Scotia reported $660,000 of sales on Day 1, tiny Prince Edward Island $152,000. The Alberta liquor and pot agency reported $730,000 in sales before the first day was half-over.

Hundreds of people wait in line to purchase legal cannabis products outside a government cannabis store in Montreal Wednesday. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files)

Hundreds of people wait in line to purchase legal cannabis products outside a government cannabis store in Montreal Wednesday. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press files)

In these circumstances, criminal gangs will presumably turn to other lines of merchandise — opioids, firearms, sex trafficking. The government, wisely, never said it would put organized crime out of business, just that it hoped to put them out of the marijuana business.

Legal, regulated employment in the newly legal cannabis industry has already massively expanded. Last week’s results suggest it may expand further. Meanwhile, the criminal gangs squeezed out of the cannabis trade will be looking for new opportunities. Whether Canada will, on balance, be a more law-abiding country is anyone’s guess. The country has at least brought the huge marijuana trade out of the shadows and into the formal, visible economy and the tax system.

Successful legalization in Canada will have a powerful effect in other countries that have been debating what to do about cannabis. This country may live a fishbowl existence for a few years as U.S. and overseas delegations come to investigate the effects on our health, our economy, our courts and our mellow national mood.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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