Ontarians should look to Alberta for reasons to just say ‘yes’ to privatized cannabis, alcohol
The Globe and Mail, March 23, 2018, B4
Full confession: I've never smoked pot. The smell is annoying, I have no desire to be stoned and prefer my highs from Rocky Mountain hikes. Also, if it were up to me, marijuana dispensaries would warn potential users that it will dull your brain and personality and limit your career path.
Thus, I favour advocacy to (voluntarily) stop marijuana use – similar to campaigns against tobacco. And I hope that, after its legalization this summer, marijuana is banned in offices and apartment buildings, on balconies and in parks – any public or open-air setting where someone else's toke is another person's annoying, polluted, formerly fresh air.
My distaste aside, I find it odd that some of the most liberal politicians in the land – Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her colleagues – are intent on restricting pot sales to a new, LCBO-run "franchise" of 40 stores as of July 1 and just 150 by 2020.
That approach will, as with many "prohibition" campaigns, be ignored by the public. If teenagers and Woodstock seniors alike can access pot now through informal networks, the Wynne government's stores will only result in less cannabis tax revenue. Much of the marijuana trade will stay underground and thus untaxed.
The Ontario government's motivation is not mysterious. As with most provincial governments across the country, Ontario has been loath to abandon prohibition-era impulses on liquor sales. Unlike Alberta, which privatized the sale of beer, wine and spirits almost a quarter-century ago, every other province micromanages the retail sale of such beverages and retains government liquor stores.
You may recall that Ontario's "reform" of such retailing licensed a paltry number of grocery stores to sell wine (70), with about 200 allowed limited selections of beer and cider. To find most anything else, one must still traipse to the nearest (often far away) government-owned LCBO store.
The Ontario approach reflects the government's inner belief that Ontarians and their consumer choices should be managed from the top down. It also coincides with the governing party's political alignment with public- and private-sector labour unions. A government closely tied to big labour is not interested in privatizing government liquor stores or providing much competition to the same. That belief and political alliance also explain why Ontario will allow just one LCBO-run pot store for every 94,620 Ontarians.
They also explain the commotion from Ms. Wynne about the position of new Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford: Perhaps Ontario should allow more private-sector involvement in liquor and pot sales. To someone who lives in Alberta, where the privatization of liquor, wine and beer sales was a massive, popular success, the Ford position makes sense.
Some history: Before Alberta privatized 208 government liquor stores in late 1993 and early 1994, those stores were supplemented by private rural stores (65) and hotel off-sales (530) with limited selection – just 2,200 products in total. Given the limited selection, the government stores captured most of the market.
As of 2017, continuing a pattern that began after privatization, Alberta's beer, wine and spirits selection stood at 22,815 products sold through 2,136 private retail outlets. A 2016 provincial government survey of consumers revealed that 93 per cent are happy with the Alberta model.
Of note, a deceptive claim made by opponents of the privatization of government liquor stores is that government revenue will be slashed. Not so. This year, beer, wine and liquor markups and taxes will contribute an estimated $876-million to Alberta government coffers. Private stores can remit liquor markups and taxes to the provincial treasury just as easily as government stores can.
Here's another measure of success of Alberta's experiment in privatization: imitation. Alberta's NDP government will license 250 private pot stores this year. Even a highly interventionist government cannot argue with an obviously successful experiment. Simply put, private retailers know how to import, order, stock and sell a product – be it beer, wine, spirits or cannabis.
Despite my own dislike for weed, when it becomes legal, Alberta's private sector will know how to retail it. Perhaps Ontarians should take note.
Mark Milke is a Calgary author and columnist. Image credit: Pixabay.