Andrew Coyne: Ontario’s marijuana mess ensures black market will survive

With Ontario’s decision to take over the marijuana business, the drug has joined the list of formerly private vices, like alcohol and gambling, the steady supply of which is now an important government responsibility.

Distribution and sales of marijuana, after it has been legalized, will be carried out via a chain of special-purpose stores operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and staffed by members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, thus fulfilling two key objectives of legalization: more money for the LCBO, and more members for OPSEU.

The choice of the province’s much-loved liquor monopoly, according to the government, was in recognition of the agency’s long record of success in keeping alcohol out of the hands of children, or at least providing them with a cruelly limited selection. OPSEU’s involvement, meanwhile, ensures control of the lucrative trade passes from organized crime to organized labour, who after all have a better dental plan.

Between them Ontarians will be ushered into an age in which it is no longer illegal to purchase marijuana, merely unpleasant. The aim is to get drugs off the street and into remote, cavernous state depositories where they belong: some 150 of them, or about the same as the province has Walmarts.

Still, it is odd that Ontario should have chosen to sell dope like liquor, rather than tobacco. Admittedly it has some of the attributes of both. Like tobacco, it is primarily ingested by smoking. Like alcohol, it is an intoxicant. Like both, it promises to make the government a ton of money — er, that is, it can be addictive, or at least habit-forming.

In fact, the government’s plan is something of a hybrid of the two. Like tobacco, it will be sold in plain packaging, from behind the counter. But like alcohol, it will be sold only in government stores. And therein lies the problem.

None of the real objectives of legalization — getting the mob out of it without getting kids into it; sparing otherwise law-abiding adults from having to deal with criminals or acquiring criminal records themselves — requires the government to be in the business. Even in purely mercenary terms, the government could make money off it simply by taxing it — as it does tobacco.

The tobacco industry may be a loathsome, amoral bunch, but they serve the vital social purpose of keeping tobacco out of the hands of government. Well, also children and the mob, but mostly government. Because something happens to governments when they get into these businesses; their judgment becomes impaired. If the government were in the tobacco business, trust me, it would be running ads telling you to smoke, the way it now runs ads telling you to gamble or drink — sorry, to drink “responsibly.” (David Frum has commented on the particular odiousness of a government that taxes honest labour at punitive rates running ads on TV extolling the get-rich-quick possibilities of lottery tickets.)

It’s good that people will be able to buy a bit of weed without fear of being charged by the police, but I’m not sure being overcharged by public employees is much of an improvement

If the only way to control access to a socially harmful product is for the government to take it over, perhaps prostitution should be handled in the same way. Will we soon see government-run brothels, staffed by dues-paying OPSEU members — open nine to four, except weekends and statutory holidays — with all other practitioners banned?

But in fact there are other options. If a government monopoly is not the only alternative to criminalization, neither is the alternative to a government monopoly a wholly unregulated market. There is no logical contradiction between legalization of marijuana and effective measures to discourage its use, or at least abuse.

Again, the tobacco model is instructive. It combines relative abundance of supply — you can buy cigarettes in any corner store — with a slew of measures aimed at suppressing demand: from education, to regulation, to taxes.

No, we haven’t been able to keep cigarettes entirely out of the hands of children. But we have been able to keep them, mostly, out of the hands of criminals (so long as we don’t lean too hard on the taxation lever, and allow the legal price to get too far out of line with the black market). And so far as distribution is confined to lawful, regulated channels, the likelihood of a child getting hold of them is reduced, even if it is not eliminated.

By contrast, the government’s approach to marijuana amounts to stimulating demand while restricting supply. We may yet be some way from Colby Cosh’s vision of snooty hempeliers picking out an appellation for patrons to enjoy with their meals. But there can be little doubt of the normalizing effect when pot is not only legal, but sold in government stores by government employees. Whatever the initial restraints on packaging and the like, moreover, it’s a safe bet these will be discarded before long: if, after all, pot is no more than alcohol by other means, as the LCBO’s control of both implies, why should it not be marketed in the same way?

But meanwhile the drug will only lawfully be available from 150 government shops — in a province of 13 million people. That part will prove much harder to dismantle: for heaven’s sake, it’s taken 90 years just to get the province to allow sales of beer and wine in the odd grocery store. The combination of increased demand and limits on supply is a sure way to sustain a flourishing black market, notwithstanding the government’s vows to suppress it. Ontario will get few of the promised benefits of legalization, but all of the costs of a state monopoly.

It’s good that people will be able to buy a bit of weed without fear of being charged by the police, but I’m not sure being overcharged by public employees is much of an improvement.


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