Pubdate: Tue, 24 Oct 2017
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Colby Cosh
Page: A10


In Alberta, as in other provinces, this will be the winter of the
weed. On Friday, the government will (finally) stop surveying the
public and inviting submissions on what the retailing system for legal
marijuana ought to look like here. It will have to finally go ahead
and create the damned thing: write, debate, and pass a law
implementing its chosen principles.

If you live elsewhere, your government is also struggling through the
guts of this process. But the political stakes are probably a little
smaller, and as far as I can tell there is much less suspense. Federal
pot legalization has created a special problem for that weirdest of
Canadian anomalies: a New Democratic government of Alberta.

The starter's pistol on legalization was officially fired in the House
of Commons in April, and the Alberta government spent June and July
taking a first round of soundings from "stakeholders" and the public.
This feedback gave them enough data to make plenty of firm, confident
decisions on the correct principles of socially healthy pot retailing.

The government determined that selling cannabis through Alberta's
existing private liquor stores is a bad idea: it doesn't want to
encourage anybody to use booze and weed in tandem. Pot stores should
face strong zoning regulations, with minimum distances from schools.
Employees should be trained to understand the ins and outs of
cannabis, and should be able to advise users on potency, safety, and
consumption techniques.

Again, if you are outside Alberta and you follow the topic of
marijuana retailing, this sort of thing will be familiar to you. It
amounts to a great deal of "etc., etc." upon which public health
experts and aspiring marijuana retailers largely agree. The problem is
that the Alberta government didn't decide what precedes the "etc.,
etc." Should the government build stores and sell weed through an
official retail bureau, the way liquor used to be sold in Alberta, and
still is elsewhere in Canada? Or should it license and regulate
private sellers, the way it has done since 1993 with booze?

The Draft Cannabis Framework issued after the first round of
consultation essentially says, "Um, we suppose there are advantages to
both kinds of system, what do you guys think?" And pretty much every
grown-up in Alberta understood the NDP's unstated problem. A system of
government weed shops would create hundreds of unionized jobs -
probably for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, a Siamese twin
of the NDP.

But almost everybody in Alberta likes the convenience and choice that
comes with private liquor retailing. Even the AUPE had a slightly
awkward time getting its members to officially endorse government pot
shops. After a quarter-century, private booze retail may have become
one of those features of Alberta that achieves a superstitious tribal
significance, like the absence of a provincial sales tax. During the
first round of consultation, most of the written submissions that
touched on the retailing aspect of cannabis favoured a regulated
private system. Some simply assumed it, because it's Alberta. How else
would we do it?

A private system has important practical advantages that even an
ideological partner of labour cannot ignore. Maybe you would like to
have marijuana sold to you by a unionized sommelier who has access to
an awesome public pension and plenty of time for paid professional
development and stress leave. Unfortunately, government pot will be
competing with Johnny Dirtbag from Okotoks, and he doesn't face the
same kind of labour costs. Minimizing Mr. Dirtbag's market share is
supposed to be a paramount goal of legalization.

Moreover, having committed to a system of freestanding stores that
sell cannabis products only, the government - if it decided to become
the retailer - would have to find the money to build them. If you'll
pardon a cruel joke, this would have been a lot easier for the Alberta
government before those darn New Democrats got their hands on the treasury.

Building and operating a government retail system is a certain recipe
for political headaches. Price discovery is hard for governments: if
we open 30 shiny new stores and cannabis users simply ignore them in
favour of the black market, that would be a disaster. If the
government starts out losing money on getting people high, that would
be at least as bad. And in what order will the stores be built? How
will the government settle questions of inter-community rivalry?
Spruce Grove vs. Stony Plain? Edson or Hinton?

It would be easier for the NDP to punt these problems and let business
do what business is good at. But does it want Albertans to vote so
strongly for private retailing that it can persuasively tell labour
that it had no other choice? Or is the second round of consultation
just a piece of theatre, designed to let the AUPE and other unions
"convince" the government that public retailing is better? We will
know soon enough, but from the standpoint of October it seems
impossible to tell. It may even be that the NDP's uncertainty is ...
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