The Trudeau government is set on legalizing marijuana by the summer of 2018. While it will enjoy the political payoff of appearing progressive on this file, all of the associated problems and logistics of legalizing pot will fall on the shoulders of the provincial governments.

There are strong correlations between how a recreational drug or other indulgence, such as gambling, is made available to the public, the propensity for individuals to indulge in it and the negative health and social outcomes associated with its use. So how we legalize marijuana matters.

Canadian provincial governments might want to draw lessons from the last time an illegal substance was legalized — alcohol — following its prohibition in the late 1920s, as well as noting insights from the current public health efforts to eliminate tobacco use. For starters, it might make sense to make acquiring recreational marijuana somewhat difficult, by restricting where it can be sold, and reasonably expensive, by controlling the price and taxing it.

All provincial governments (except Alberta, which eliminated its liquor board) should consider selling recreational (but not medicinal) marijuana only in government liquor stores, because they have the secure infrastructure in place to deal with a drug with narcotic properties. They also have well-trained and professional staff and secure logistical facilities to ensure it is distributed in a socially responsible manner. Using government liquor stores will eliminate the potentially enormous political problem of licensing dispensaries and determining where (and when) they will be permitted to open and operate. It will also eliminate the possibility of organized criminal elements establishing and operating dispensaries.

Most critically, provincial governments should control not only the retail side of marijuana sales but the wholesale side as well. They should sell recreational marijuana as a “store brand” in plain packaging and offer only a few different types. This approach will prevent manufacturers from developing specific brands of pot and promoting them through advertising campaigns.

Store brands are more profitable for retailers, largely because the retailers gain more control over manufacturing and cut out supplier middlemen. As the sole wholesaler in a province, a provincial liquor board will be able to drive hard bargains with manufacturers and return gains from its strong bargaining position to public coffers.

Governments must also impose significant taxes on marijuana. But taxes will not bring in significant net revenues because governments must also cover the costs associated with the use and misuse of marijuana. Overall government revenues from the sale of pot will be limited given the decline in pot prices over the last 25 years: a gram of pot in the 1990s cost $15, while a gram today costs less than $10 on the illegal market.

Contrary to popular belief, the legalization of marijuana will require an increase in law enforcement efforts to stamp out the black market. When government liquor commissions took over alcohol distribution, bootleggers had to be eliminated so that they would not undercut either the state’s monopoly on sales or its ability to control how alcohol was sold and consumed.

Policies and techniques will need to be developed to allow the police to determine which pot has been legally procured and which has not. Since federal legislation will permit individual Canadians to grow their own marijuana plants at home, verifying legally procured marijuana will be considerably more difficult.

Provinces should be wary about offering edible pot for sale. Ingesting marijuana substantially increases its potency. Edible pot is often sold in the form of products attractive to children such as brownies and gummi bears, substantially increasing the potential for accidental consumption — including by children. If provinces do decide to sell edibles, they should offer only one type with an established dosage amount so users are well aware of how much marijuana they are ingesting.

Governments should consider setting the minimum age for purchase at 21, as recommended by many medical practitioners. In order to limit consumption and normalization of its use, there should be no advertising or promotion of marijuana.

I make these suggestions as a way for provincial governments to make the best of a very difficult situation. Legal access might very well increase the consumption of marijuana as well as the associated costs of dealing with its effects on individuals. Like many issues in Canadian federalism, this is a classic case where the federal government is wholly detached from the reality of implementing its policy and from the real costs associated with it.

Photo: Shutterstock/Marc Bruxelle

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Malcolm G. Bird
Malcolm G. Bird teaches political science at the University of Winnipeg and is an expert adviser with

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