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Colby Cosh: Into the weeds: Pot legalization creates unique challenges for NDP Alberta

In Alberta, as in other provinces, this will be the winter of the weed. On Friday, the government will (finally) stop surveying the public and inviting submissions on what the retailing system for legal marijuana ought to look like here. It will have to finally go ahead and create the damned thing: write, debate, and pass a law implementing its chosen principles.

If you live elsewhere, your government is also struggling through the guts of this process. But the political stakes are probably a little smaller, and as far as I can tell there is much less suspense. Federal pot legalization has created a special problem for that weirdest of Canadian anomalies: a New Democratic government of Alberta.

The starter’s pistol on legalization was officially fired in the House of Commons in April, and the Alberta government spent June and July taking a first round of soundings from “stakeholders” and the public. This feedback gave them enough data to make plenty of firm, confident decisions on the correct principles of socially healthy pot retailing.

The political stakes of legalization are probably a little smaller outside of Alberta

The government determined that selling cannabis through Alberta’s existing private liquor stores is a bad idea: it doesn’t want to encourage anybody to use booze and weed in tandem. Pot stores should face strong zoning regulations, with minimum distances from schools. Employees should be trained to understand the ins and outs of cannabis, and should be able to advise users on potency, safety, and consumption techniques.

Again, if you are outside Alberta and you follow the topic of marijuana retailing, this sort of thing will be familiar to you. It amounts to a great deal of “etc., etc.” upon which public health experts and aspiring marijuana retailers largely agree. The problem is that the Alberta government didn’t decide what precedes the “etc., etc.” Should the government build stores and sell weed through an official retail bureau, the way liquor used to be sold in Alberta, and still is elsewhere in Canada? Or should it license and regulate private sellers, the way it has done since 1993 with booze?

The Draft Cannabis Framework issued after the first round of consultation essentially says, “Um, we suppose there are advantages to both kinds of system, what do you guys think?” And pretty much every grown-up in Alberta understood the NDP’s unstated problem. A system of government weed shops would create hundreds of unionized jobs — probably for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, a Siamese twin of the NDP.

Almost every Albertan likes the private liquor retail system

But almost everybody in Alberta likes the convenience and choice that comes with private liquor retailing. Even the AUPE had a slightly awkward time getting its members to officially endorse government pot shops. After a quarter-century, private booze retail may have become one of those features of Alberta that achieves a superstitious tribal significance, like the absence of a provincial sales tax. During the first round of consultation, most of the written submissions that touched on the retailing aspect of cannabis favoured a regulated private system. Some simply assumed it, because it’s Alberta. How else would we do it?

A private system has important practical advantages that even an ideological partner of labour cannot ignore. Maybe you would like to have marijuana sold to you by a unionized sommelier who has access to an awesome public pension and plenty of time for paid professional development and stress leave. Unfortunately, government pot will be competing with Johnny Dirtbag from Okotoks, and he doesn’t face the same kind of labour costs. Minimizing Mr. Dirtbag’s market share is supposed to be a paramount goal of legalization.

Moreover, having committed to a system of free-standing stores that sell cannabis products only, the government — if it decided to become the retailer — would have to find the money to build them. If you’ll pardon a cruel joke, this would have been a lot easier for the Alberta government before those darn New Democrats got their hands on the treasury.

Building a government retail system would also be a recipe for political headaches

Building and operating a government retail system is a certain recipe for political headaches. Price discovery is hard for governments: if we open 30 shiny new stores and cannabis users simply ignore them in favour of the black market, that would be a disaster. If the government starts out losing money on getting people high, that would be at least as bad. And in what order will the stores be built? How will the government settle questions of inter-community rivalry? Spruce Grove vs. Stony Plain? Edson or Hinton?

It would be easier for the NDP to punt these problems and let business do what business is good at. But does it want Albertans to vote so strongly for private retailing that it can persuasively tell labour that it had no other choice? Or is the second round of consultation just a piece of theatre, designed to let the AUPE and other unions “convince” the government that public retailing is better? We will know soon enough, but from the standpoint of October it seems impossible to tell. It may even be that the NDP’s uncertainty is… genuine?


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