When Canada legalizes recreational weed this fall, Ontario will be selling it online and, from early next year, in private outlets across the province, as well. This announcement, made publically on Monday, reverses the previous administration’s plans to use publically owned stores to distribute cannabis throughout the province. It is a total about turn.
The Progressive Conservatives, who came to power at the end of June, said that their main concern when developing the system was on public safety. However, critics worry that the new model could potentially cause major challenges for regulation and enforcement. Ontario Cannabis Store, a government agency, will sell weed online from October 17, when it becomes legal to do so.
By April 1 next year, Ontario will also be using a “tightly regulated” model for distribution through private retail outlets. According to the government, the will also be the sole wholesaler to these private stores. Ordinary citizens, if licensed, can sell weed in stores, but only the government will be growing and supplying the market.
“We will be ready to put in place a safe, legal system for cannabis retail that will protect consumers,” announced Attorney General Caroline Mulroney. “We will be ready to work alongside municipalities, law enforcement, and Indigenous communities to combat organized crime and the illegal market.” If anybody wants to buy legal weed in Ontario, they will need to be at least 19-years or older.
Furthermore, the law will only allow consumers to use legal weed in private residences, which includes the home’s outdoors, such as the garden. The maximum quantity of recreational cannabis that consumers can possess on their person will be 30 grams. Additionally, Mulroney stresses that the government will “spare no expense” to protect minors from weed when it is legalized.
“Our message to kids, and all Ontarians, is clear,” Mulroney said. “Despite the upcoming legalization of recreational cannabis use for responsible adults, it is still a drug that poses risks to health and safety.” Municipalities can make some of their own decisions. Vic Fedeli, Finance Minister, says they can opt out of having weed stores in their jurisdictions.
Fedeli also stressed that the government will consult with all municipalities before it moves ahead next spring with marijuana in private retail stores. Storeowners will have to comply with a series of rules, including the ban of marijuana sales to anyone younger than 19-years old, Fedeli noted, warning that anyone caught selling to underage buyers would lose their licenses.
Fedeli said, “We will work with private sector businesses to build a safe, reliable retail system that will divert sales away from the legal market. He also added that the online sales channel launching this fall will have a “robust verification system” that would ensure safe delivery of cannabis products to private residences.
Ontario will also learn from the private retail models under implementation in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The former Liberal government planned to give the Liquor Control Board of Ontario sole monopoly on the sale of recreational pot, wanting to open at least 150 stores province-wide by 2020. The Tory government, on the other hand, has no target in mind to limit the stores it wants to introduce.
Andrea Horwath, NDP Leader, says that selling weed through the public sector is the most responsible way to do it. She urged Premier Doug Ford to guarantee that the promised cultivation on the private retail model be thorough, open, and transparent. “The LCBO staff has the experience and training to ensure socially responsible access,” she said.
Horwath also reiterated that, “The model selected by the government needs to push the criminal element out of the picture.” John Fraser, interim Liberal Leader, says that the government chose a model so complex it may prove hard to enforce.
“There will be greater challenges in terms of trying to manage it,” Fraser warned. Robert Schwartz, a professor specializing in marijuana distribution and public health at the University of Toronto, agrees, claiming it hard to imagine how the Tory government’s private model would be safer than the earlier plan.
“If privatization is meant that any store will be able to sell cannabis,” Schwartz said, “then I would say that this is highly problematic given our experience with tobacco sales that are available 24 hours a day at every corner. Schwartz, who is also the executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, alleges that private companies have a “profit motive.”
According to him, their goal is to sell as much as possible, which could mean less compliance with regulations, such as selling to minors on the sly. Although cannabis is not addictive like tobacco is, Schwartz claims that anyone prone to addiction may be more at risk if the private sector controls cannabis sales.
“There is a role that availability has to play on getting people started with a product and keeping them using the product,” Schwartz explained. Meanwhile, Mike Schreiner, who leads the Green Party, praised Monday’s announcement, saying that the previous plan under the Liberal government was never going to work.
“The one warning I would give to the market is this should be focused in a way that is licensed for local businesses, local farmers, and Indigenous organizations, and not a sop you would give to big business or friends of the premier,” Schreiner said. Cam Battley, chief corporate officer of Aurora Cannabis Inc., a licensed pot producer, says that the company is very happy with the direction change.
“I think we will find ourselves in Ontario with a very robust and smoothly operating retail system,” Battley said. “Beyond that, it ultimately may end up putting pressure on other governments to consider their own system, to consider opening it up.” He also said that online sales would be safe with strict age verification. “We already do that in Canada with wine,” he pointed out:
“You can order wine for home delivery by Canada Post and you have age verification at the door.”