By Stephanie Smith & Damian Kettlewell
Love it or hate it, public retailing of non-medical marijuana is coming.
With that in mind, the most socially responsible way to sell it in B.C. is through our existing public and private liquor stores.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took office in October 2015, they did so with a host of mandates from Canadians. Former prime minister Stephen Harper thought that the Liberals’ position on legal marijuana would sink them, but in the end it was hardly an issue at all.
Now, it’s up to the Trudeau government to work out the details on removing marijuana from the Criminal Code, but the provinces have the responsibility of determining how it will be regulated, sold and distributed.
The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union and the B.C. Private Liquor Store Association formed the Responsible Marijuana Retail Alliance of B.C. in December 2015. We are working together on a straightforward goal: to see legal, non-medical marijuana warehoused and distributed through the existing Liquor Distribution Branch system and sold in B.C. alongside alcohol in liquor stores.
It’s not every day that substances are removed from the Criminal Code. Here in B.C., we have a system that is perfectly suited to handle the change. Our public and private liquor stores are already regulated and established in communities across the province.
We have witnessed confusion in Vancouver where the municipal government has spent a great deal of time and effort to create a new permitting system for medical marijuana. Vancouver’s current system continues to create complications and frustrations for both consumers and businesses while raising legitimate risks to youth with low compliance rates.
In the large majority of cases, liquor stores in B.C. have above 90-per-cent compliance rates for age verification. Youth in B.C. have a much more difficult time accessing alcohol than they do tobacco.
On the distribution side, the LDB operates a secure network that already transports hundreds of millions of dollars of a controlled substance every year. Creating a separate, parallel system to accomplish something that our province already does so well would be unnecessarily costly and time-consuming. Money would be diverted from important public services like education and health care into additional bureaucracy.
B.C. is ready to lead on the sale of non-medical marijuana. Numerous polls leading up to last year’s federal election suggested that support for legalization here was substantially higher than in any other province. Around two-thirds of British Columbians support outright legalization, and many more supporting decriminalization.
Our two organizations have not taken a stand on the legalization or consumption of non-medical marijuana. Legalization is inevitable. Being pragmatic, we believe marijuana should be sold in the most socially responsible way possible.
Looking south of the border to Colorado and Washington, once their systems were up and running, tax revenues from marijuana sales have exceeded forecasts in both states. This year, marijuana sales in Colorado are on pace to contribute $125 million to the state coffers.
However, that is just tax revenue from private sales. Profits from our public stores and distribution network contribute over $900 million annually to education, health care and other vital public services. These funds help keep other taxes down.
B.C. has recently shown initiative with our burgeoning local wine, beer and spirits industries. While regulations on how marijuana is grown will be determined by others, we feel this is another place where marijuana can follow the model of alcohol: producers of a variety of sizes, including local producers, and a small allowance for non-commercial personal production.
We need to ensure that marijuana legalization benefits our province while we reduce risk by keeping sales in a strictly age-controlled environment with the strongest track record of checking identification.
If done properly, with the appropriate regulatory oversight and safeguards in place, legalized marijuana can create jobs and generate public revenue to fund public services.