Ontario's pot plan aims to protect us from ourselves: Neil Macdonald

The new outlets will not allow people to actually see what they are buying. And no advertising. Or marketing. Just like cigarettes.

Only government employees can be relied upon to properly retail cannabis, obviously

The new outlets will not allow people to actually see what they are buying. And no advertising. Or marketing. Just like cigarettes. (Canadian Press/CBC)

But of course the government of Ontario intends to make itself one of the biggest weed dealers in the world. And of course it's going to award itself an absolute monopoly — the cannabis equivalent of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

Was there ever any doubt?

There's a fortune to be made in peddling sin — governments already control booze and gambling in Canada, they don't like competition and a whole bureaucracy wants in on the action. The self-appointed guardians of our rectitude.

Ontario's public employees' union, OPSEU, has been drooling over the prospect of all those secure new jobs, and began lobbying for the pot franchise the moment Justin Trudeau's Liberals arrived in power, with their promise to legalize.

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The unions and their government are even singing the same talking points: only government employees can be relied upon to properly retail cannabis. Private dispensaries are a danger by comparison (not to mention an economic threat). The substance may become legal, but private sales must be swept out of existence.

Ontario says it will initially open 40 outlets next July, rising to 150 in a few years. From the sounds of it, they will be austere, inherently scolding places, basically designed to make you apply for a perfectly legal product.

"Ontario's retail model will … sell products in a safe and socially responsible manner to restrict access for minors and give consumers the information they need," says the Ontario finance ministry in an official statement.

It is a law of politics that shamelessness pays, but only in Canada would it be taken to this level of nakedly self-serving, patronizing demagoguery without an indignant shove back from the consuming public. We're just so used to it.

Because of federal regulations, the new outlets will not allow people to actually see what they are buying. And no advertising. Or marketing. Just like cigarettes.

Well, fine, except Ontario allows corner stores to sell cigarettes. There are usually signs advising that ID may be required to ascertain the customer's age, and I've seen clerks ask for it.

It all seems pretty socially responsible to me, and tobacco use has declined massively over the years. Why, then, shouldn't dispensaries, or, for that matter, corner stores, sell pot? Why can only government employees save us from ourselves?

But the real whopper isn't the cigarette analogy. It's alcohol.

Public health threat

A study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, published in 2013, identifies alcohol as one of the greatest public health threats in Canada, a drug far more dangerous than cannabis, and its consumption is on the rise.

The centre's literature connects alcohol to more than 200 diseases and injuries, blaming it for eight per cent of deaths under the age of 70 and seven per cent of hospital stays. Health advocates call alcohol "the new tobacco."

A separate CAMH study asserts that "Canadians drink more than 50 per cent above the global average." That figure, presumably, holds in Ontario.

And yet, the self-described socially responsible LCBO is constantly sending out glossy advertisements, urging the public to buy more. It presents alcohol as glamourous and sophisticated. It suggests food pairings. It surprises customers with sudden sales (puny reductions, but sales nonetheless). Sommeliers are on hand in the LCBO's high-end wine shops to offer advice.

And it makes special efforts to push Ontario wines, making sure they're up front and in your face.

Even conservative Americans are getting over this foolishness, but in Canada, normally sensible, educated people still assert marijuana is a "gateway drug." (Matilde Campodonico/Associated Press)

There will be none of that in the new provincial pot shops. In a long, not-for-attribution background briefing, an Ontario cannabis bureaucrat told me it is unclear whether employees will be able to offer advice on the best dope (the federal regulations would seem to forbid that), or which dope might best suit the customer's needs. Or even whether there will be more than one strain of cannabis on offer, let alone special treatment for Ontario-grown cannabis. (Initially, at least, all the product will come from government-approved medical cannabis growers).

It is as yet undecided how many customers will be allowed in a shop at the same time. (My guess is there will be permanent lineups outside). "Edibles" of the sort sold legally in the U.S. will be banned. Will people be allowed to buy in other provinces? "That is yet to be determined."

So why the full-bore marketing of alcohol, but severe restrictions on cannabis?

Well, my briefer explained, Ontario's government feels that Canadians have become much more educated over the decades about alcohol, and have learned to make responsible choices, so the LCBO's approach has evolved.

Mmm-hmm. And so has the "dividend remitted to the government," as the government likes to call the taxes vacuumed up by its alcohol monopoly. Two billion dollars or so last year.

A 'gateway drug'

But the real reason is that government still considers itself in loco parentis, and pot, inexplicably, remains a boogeyman.

Even conservative Americans are getting over that foolishness, but in Canada, normally sensible, educated people still assert it's a "gateway drug." Yes, they tried it, and it didn't make them try heroin, or anyone they actually know, but they have heard stories about their friend's cousin's daughter who ended up in rehab, so they're concerned.

As a result, ministers in the government of Justin Trudeau, who himself has smoked pot and presumably didn't graduate to heroin, cannot open their mouths about the subject of legalization without banging on endlessly about how strict the system will be, and how they're really only doing it to put criminals out of business.

For heaven's sake. Pot is already part of our lives. Millions of people smoke it at every level of society. Whatever threat it poses is mild compared to tobacco and alcohol. Decades of criminalization ruined countless careers and lives.

My briefer told me that legalizing a substance is not an easy thing. Well, actually, yes it is, when you have a majority government. Just do it. Justin Trudeau is not my father, and Kathleen Wynne is not my mother, and they should stop acting like they are.

Oh, also: I stopped smoking dope ages ago. It just weirds me out. So this all comes too late. But still.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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