Chris Selley: With marijuana retail plan, Ontario Tories make unexpected lurch toward sanity

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government called a brief truce in its multi-front war with the federal Liberals on Monday to give one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s signature policies a major boost: as had been widely rumoured, the Tories will scrap the previous Liberal government’s tentative public marijuana retail scheme and instead hand out licenses to the private sector.

How many licenses and what kinds of stores are just two of many unresolved details. The government says it will consult widely to determine how best to proceed, with a target opening date for licensed brick-and-mortar stores of April 1, 2019 (with publicly run online sales to commence in October). But it seems safe to hope the cap, if any, will be significantly higher than the previous government’s laughably timid 150.

Thanks to Toronto’s reluctantly laissez-faire approach to illegal storefront (nudge-wink) “medical” marijuana “dispensaries,” we know 150 might not even satisfy a free market in the country’s largest city. Trudeau has always said the goal of legalization was to smash the illegal market and plunk down a legal one in its place. The Ontario Liberals’ plan seemed almost tailor-made to fail in that endeavour.

There remains ample room for the new government to screw this up. But if it gets pricing and regulation and enforcement halfway right, the country’s most populous province should now be well placed to give legalization a good shot at achieving what proponents have always said it should — which is, basically, to make it like booze. Of course kids still get their hands on booze, but at least it’s a bit of a chore. And at least when kids get drunk, they’re not drinking moonshine.

In a Monday news conference, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli unveiled a proposed “Ontario licensed” seal of approval, and suggested discriminating consumers would abandon their dealers en masse for it. “Consumers can look to this seal to tell them they are buying from a legal channel,” said Fedeli. “Ultimately, this is an assurance that the illegal market simply cannot match.”

We’ll see. In the meantime, it’s interesting to ponder why they’re going in this direction. Fedeli and Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney were at great pains Monday to stress their primary concern was the children.

“First and foremost, we want to protect our kids,” said Mulroney. “There will be no compromise, no expense spared, to ensure that our kids will be protected following the legalization of the drug.”

“Under no circumstances — none — will we tolerate anybody sharing, selling or otherwise providing cannabis to anybody under the age of 19,” said Mulroney. Fedeli vowed that even a single sale to a minor would void a retailer’s license.

These talking points could just as plausibly have introduced a huge scaling back of the previous government’s plans — or perhaps yet another war with Ottawa, in which Queen’s Park simply refused to have anything to do with legal marijuana.

Trusting the private sector over the public is emphatically on-brand for Premier Doug Ford and his party. More widely available booze and pot is on-brand for him — Ford has also pledged to expand beer sales — but not so much for his party. Tory voices for free markets and consumer convenience have always struggled to be heard over Presbyterian hand-wringing and general terror of change. No less a small-government authority than Mike Harris abandoned his pledge to sell off the LCBO and watched contentedly as it (somewhat) modernized and entwined itself, and all its accompanying absurdities, with Ontario’s DNA.


Ontario’s Minister of Finance Vic Fedeli and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney announce Ontario’s cannabis retail model, in Toronto on Aug. 13, 2018.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Moreover, at least at this point, Premier Ford’s plan bears a striking similarity to what his party’s first cousins in Ottawa warned us Trudeau was cooking up. Stephen Harper’s 2015 campaign featured hysterical warnings that Trudeau wanted only the most nefarious and unwashed citizens to retail cannabis, in only the dingiest of stores, thus ensuring children would have unfettered access. If Ford’s plan were Kathleen Wynne’s plan, Conservatives would be tearing it to shreds.

More or less of necessity, certainly in Canada, conservative parties occasionally have to throw in the towel — on same-sex marriage, most notably — and refocus on battles not yet lost. Mostly, Ford’s government seems to be retrenching. They refuse to commit to opening more safe injection sites. The NDP opposition’s demands for an apology from Public Safety Minister Michael Tibollo, after he portrayed an area of Toronto as a bullet-ridden hellscape, went unanswered. Ford has offered to rehouse a statue of John A. Macdonald, which Victoria City Hall has deemed too offensive to leave standing.

Generally speaking, the same can be said for Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives — and they’re clearly excited about Ford’s Ontario, not least because of the momentum he adds to their anti-Trudeau brand. But Ontario’s lurch toward sanity on marijuana is proof that hitching your conservative wagon to Ford’s horse can lead you down some unexpected trails, with unpredictable results.

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