Editor’s note: In December, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced that the B.C. government would implement a cannabis distribution model with both private and public retail locations, but didn’t say whether the province would co-locate cannabis and alcohol. The government is expected to make a decision later this month.
In just over six months, the federal Liberals will complete delivery of their election promise to legalize marijuana. As of July 2018, retail and distribution will commence across the country under regulations developed by each province.
Last month, the province of British Columbia announced the possibility of a cannabis-with-liquor retailing plan that is causing widespread concern. It means that the federal government’s Cannabis Task Force consultation process—resulting in very clear findings about cannabis retailing—has been rejected by British Columbia, and for no good reason.
We are urging the B.C. government to review the original purposes of the Cannabis Act and the Task Force recommendations and ensure that the path they are adopting achieves those purposes and follows those recommendations, because as some critics will say, the handling of the cannabis file is mostly about benefiting a single, large public-sector union, while setting aside an overwhelming mass of expertise.
In their report Public Health Perspectives on Cannabis Policy and Regulation, chief medical officers of health noted several public health concerns with the co-location of sales. Of particular concern was that, given the high rate of alcohol use by the adult population (over 80 percent of Canadians consume alcohol) compared to the relatively small usage rate of cannabis (approximately 11 percent of adults have consumed cannabis in the past year), there is a significant risk of cannabis and cannabis advertising being introduced to a large number of Canadians who might not otherwise use cannabis.
In B.C., they observed that with more than 36 million individual annual customer visits to the 199 government liquor stores, the potential for increasing rates of use and co-use run counter to the public health objectives of harm reduction and prevention.
In addition, co-location of sales might signify to some that co-use of cannabis and alcohol or tobacco is condoned or encouraged. The task force heard repeatedly about significant risks of co-use to public health and safety, especially with respect to driving, and that governments must do whatever they can to prevent it. While there is little research to confirm that there is a direct correlation between co-location and co-use, a precautionary approach, combined with the example of how other governments have dealt with this issue, supports reducing possible risks by banning co-location of sales wherever possible.
In context of a safe and responsible supply chain, we should use licensing and production controls that support a diverse and competitive market that also help small producers. There is no way a co-location model with alcohol in government stores will support, encourage or grow the diverse competitive market that the task force recommends. The pull of a monopoly will be overwhelming. Those who can
do mass, large-scale production in a highly uniform way will dominate the market, crowding out the diversity.
B.C. has a thriving craft beer industry, but it needed government support to grow and compete. There is strong support for adopting this model for craft cannabis retailing, including on-site consumption of the product. It’s very difficult to imagine how this approach would fit into co-location, which is based on mass distribution where volume is always prioritized over choice.
Government stores and distribution will have a negative impact on competitive pricing, making black market sources more attractive and in turn increasing the burden on law enforcement. This undermines the government’s original intent for legalization.
The task force came to a conclusion that leaves little room for interpretation: “Jurisdictions should avoid and strongly discourage the co-location of retail cannabis and alcohol or tobacco sales wherever possible.”
We are happy that Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has left the door open to a transition to existing private cannabis dispensaries. So far, however, his government hasn’t provided any language specifically describing that transition of existing responsible dispensaries. Rejecting co-location, and building on the success of dispensaries to date, will help to ensure that the new system protects public health while ensuring economic growth.
If the province of B.C. has a reason to reject the basis of this task force’s detailed work, they should say what it is. At this stage, all we have is a policy direction that has already led some observers to suspect that the interests of a single union representing government liquor store employees are being placed above the public good. Minister Farnworth has a very strong argument for resisting co-location and we hope he is going to use it.