Analysis

Psst — Government agency asks if you want some really good stuff: Don Pittis

My dealer is the premier: How the Liquor Control Board of Ontario must apply its sophisticated wine expertise to cannabis.

Ontario's liquor board, a large and sophisticated dealer in wine and spirits, is expanding

A home grower displays marijuana buds in his house in Montevideo, Uruguay. Canadian government monopolies like the Liquor Control Board of Ontario are highly sophisticated in the business of wine and spirits, but they have a lot to learn about selling recreational pot. (Andres Stapff/Reuters)

When Conservative Premier Howard Ferguson founded the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in 1927, the new Crown corporation was by no means a sophisticated purveyor of wines and spirits. 

Now Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne plans to sell recreational cannabis through the same agency.

The federal government's plan is that beginning on July 1, 2018, adults will be allowed to purchase fresh and dried cannabis, cannabis oils and seeds and plants for cultivation. Provincial governments will set up their own regulatory systems.

The original purpose of the LCBO was to limit and control a substance that, only a few years previously, the majority of Canadians had believed was harmful and even dangerous.

Since those early days, the provincial liquor monopoly — like others across Canada — has become a discriminating buyer and retailer of the world's finest wines and spirits.

Trusted dealer

As the government moves into the role once performed by those private enterprise professionals commonly called drug dealers, the question is whether the LCBO can cultivate the same kind of sophistication and trust it has developed as a seller of wine.

Just as in the post-Prohibition 1920s when alcohol became legal again, Canadians are far from unanimous that pot should be legalized at all.

Provincial governments will again be under political pressure, at least at the beginning, to act as if they are performing a necessary evil, taking legal control of a substance that has been in the hands of criminals.
The experts in selling marijuana are people who have been 'basically breaking the law,' says Dan Malleck of Brock University. (David Horemans/CBC)

But as experts I spoke to say, to attract the current recreational users of cannabis and thus wipe out the illegal trade, the government agency will have to develop a level of marketing savvy not unlike what they have established in alcohol distribution.

An accredited sommelier, Lori Davis worked for the LCBO for 20 years and is just one example of the agency's expertise.

"My background was from the Maritimes, and my mom and dad drank Baby Duck," she exclaims with mock horror, recalling the Sunday dinner tipple.

Cannabis pairings?

Despite her unrefined oenological beginnings, with the support of the Crown corporation and considerable outside training, Davis became a leading taster.

"Let's talk about Niagara on the Bench," she says, describing a tasting session comparing nearby Ontario wine areas. "Why that would be different from Twenty Miles?"

Cannabis educator Alex Revich says the pot business may eventually get around to passing on cultural values such as terroirs and cannabis pairings ("Strains to pair with certain music?"), but some of the others skills Davis describes at the LCBO will be urgently needed for managing recreational marijuana.
Online recipes and food pairings are among the ways the LCBO has moved far beyond selling liquor in brown paper bags. Will pairings for pot be next? (LCBO)

Revich began learning about cannabis at the Canadian company MedReleaf in the early days of legalized medical marijuana. He's one of a rare breed, someone willing to talk about both medical and recreational marijuana who didn't learn his skills in the black market.

People will have to learn things about the recreational market that are quite different from the medical side, he says.

For instance, the variety of pot you want for a dance party will be different from the kind you might take for bowel relief.

An acquired taste

The method of consumption could be different as well, he says. Medical cannabis for nausea or pain is taken as an anal suppository. That would be an acquired taste amongst the youthful party crowd.

Strains of pot contain varying amounts of complex organic molecules, some responsible for making the user feel high and some that relax them. Especially when advising new legal users, Crown corporation employees will have to know the difference.

Cannabis sativa imparts euphoria that may not be desirable for pain relief, but it can also lead to anxiety in some people, says Revich. The most common street drugs are strains of Cannabis indica called kush, that he says have a relaxing effect.

The fragrance of the smoke, or as non-users might say, the horrible stink, also varies with strain depending on the content of organic compounds called terpenes, but Revich says even for recreational users, smoking is the worst way to consume the drug. He is sure government retailers will soon include other methods such as vaping where dosages can be accurately controlled.
The LCBO has a huge testing laboratory that looks for pesticides and other chemicals in samples of the thousands of wines it sells, and it does contract work for others. (LCBO)

When it comes to measuring impurities, strength and quality, the laboratories of the LCBO make it a powerhouse in the global industry says Niagara College winemaking teacher Gavin Robertson. But compared to measuring a single active ingredient, alcohol, pot chemistry will be far more complicated.

The LCBO has much to learn, says Dan Malleck, an internationally recognized expert in drug and alcohol policy at Brock University and author of the booksWhen Good Drugs Go Bad and Try to Control Yourself.

Just the buzz

He says that while people enjoy wine, beer and spirits for their bouquet and flavour, consuming recreational pot is exclusively about the effect, something LCBO employees will have to understand.

Just as sommeliers must drink wine and, as Lori Davis points out, know the taste of various cigars, being a knowledgeable consumer of pot may be a job requirement in the new LCBO division. 

"The buzz is what people who are smoking it recreationally are interested in," says Malleck. And while smokers may choose a strain based on good aroma rather just the strength of the drug effect, "I don't know any people who just smoke cannabis because they like the taste."

That could change as the marijuana equivalent of Baby Duck drinkers move on to the pot equivalent of a Riesling from the Niagara Bench.

Right now it is crucial for the LCBO to gather enough expertise not just to sell to the unsophisticated new smoker, but to win over users who now buy from dealers or storefront shops.

Since recreational pot is illegal, says Malleck, by definition almost all the expertise in recreational pot is in the illegal market.

"Part of it comes down to whether there will be the political will to bring into the fold people who have been basically breaking the law," says Malleck.

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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