Pot insider says dispensaries are 'dreaming' if they think they'll be part of legalization framework
Former provincial chief of staff makes predictions on the legal recreational marijuana industry
Omar Khan sat down with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning to discuss big questions that have yet to be answered in the federal government's push to develop a legal framework for recreational marijuana sales by July 2018.
Khan is former chief of staff to the Ontario health minister and he now works with the marijuana industry as vice president, public affairs of Hill + Knowlton strategies.
Questions and answers have been condensed.
Matt Galloway: How prepared is this country for legal weed?
Omar Khan: I think right now you have a patchwork of readiness. You have provinces like Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick who are fairly well advanced in terms of their thinking. And you have others, like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, who quite frankly are a little bit further behind.
MG: What are the big questions that still have to be answered?
OK: I think one of the points that's getting less attention is where will one be able to use marijuana. For example, you can walk down a public sidewalk and smoke a cigarette, but you can't walk down the sidewalk and drink a beer. I think that's a conversation that needs to happen.
MG: Do you think that people will be allowed to smoke marijuana in parks, if they can't have an open bottle of alcohol there now?
OK: There's a lot of evidence that suggests that harm associated with marijuana use is less than that associated with regular alcohol use. So I think it's something that the province of Ontario especially is going to be looking at as they move forward with their strategy.
MG: What about the sale issue?
OK: Since the government has set a fairly aggressive timeline for legalization — some have said, July 2018 — I think it's going to be very difficult for the government to have an up-and-running, bricks-and-mortar retail operation by this time next year essentially. I think the government is looking at three options: one would be a wholly government-run crown corporation a la LCBO; I think another option would be a heavily regulated system that gives out private licences for retailing; and then, the third option would be what we call a hybrid. Some private licences combined with a government-run system, similar to how beer and wine is distributed in Ontario.
MG: Which way do you think they are leaning?
OK: I know the Ontario government started looking at this seriously, right after the election of the Trudeau government. I know the attorney general, Yassir Naqvi, is working away feverishly to put together some options for cabinet to consider. I also know the premier is very big on consultation, so I suspect that before any plan is rolled out, there will be a robust public consultation.
MG: Can you have robust public consultation and still set up that regulatory body in time?
OK: I know they've been working at this hard for a year or so. The timeline's going to be a challenge no doubt. That's why I suspect that if there are going to be public consultations, as I presume there will be, they'll be rolling them out fairly shortly.
MG: Is the timeline too tight?
OK: It is what it is. Having worked in government, I know that sometimes you have to set a deadline to get everybody working away at achieving a goal. At the end of the day, what's important is that we are going to have legalized adult use of recreational cannabis in this country. And, industry, government, all involved stakeholders need to start working very fast to get this done right.
MG: You work with the industry now. What do they want to know?
OK: Like members of the public, they are waiting for more information about what the retail distribution model will look like. But I think industry is very interested in sharing some of their expertise when it comes to distribution. There are a lot of players who have a lot of experience dealing with controlled substances. So for example, pharmacies, care centres.
I want to give kudos to Mayor Tory who spoke out vigorously against the illegal dispensaries that are out there right now. The one question everyone needs to ask is, where are these people getting their supply? We have 50 licensed producers or marijuana in this country right now.
MG: So where are they getting their supply?
OK: I don't want to open myself up to defamation. But they're not getting them from the licensed producers because none of them would risk their licence by providing supply illegally.
MG: The assumption from many of the illegal dispensaries is that they're going to be part of the new regime.
OK: I think they are dreaming in technicolour. There is no way the province of Ontario or any other province is going to give a retail distribution licence to any entity that's involved in criminal activity.
MG: Do you really think we'll meet this deadline?
OK: The good thing [Finance Minister] Morneau has put out there is that if there's a province that isn't ready with an up-and-running distribution system next year, there will be a fallback, and I suspect that will be online sales.