Private pot shops are wonderful and probably doomed: Neil Macdonald

A cannabis store has opened right in my Ottawa neighbourhood. Such variety. Such pleasant service, with a buzzy little vibe. And such reasonable prices. Which of course means the government will be along soon to shut the place down.

Most governments don't tolerate competition in the sin business

A cannabis store has opened right in my Ottawa neighbourhood. Such variety. Such pleasant service, with a buzzy little vibe. And such reasonable prices. Which of course means the government will be along soon to shut the place down. (David Horemans/CBC)

To be clear, legal dope has arrived far too late for me. I haven't smoked up since people actually called it "smoking up."

In fact, the last time I did, it weirded me out so thoroughly I had to take a Valium. Getting old is the worst.

Anyway, I feel cheated. During my dope-smoking years, buying was a squalid exercise that usually involved a late-night visit to some dealer's crappy apartment, or a quick transaction in a car, handing over cash in return for a stinking baggie full of weed, stuffed into a brown paper bag, always wondering whether the dealer was under surveillance and the transaction would end in criminal charges, big lawyer's fees, loss of my job and permanent exclusion from the United States.

That was no joke. It happened to friends.

And now, a candy store – sorry, a cannabis store – has opened right in my Ottawa neighbourhood. Similar little operations have been popping up all over Canada, small businesses eager to make a few dollars in a new market, and bless them all.

I immediately visited, unable to stop grinning at the novelty of it. The nice lady behind the cash explained all the different strains on offer: she had Shake, Bubba, Power Plant, Rockstar, Trainwreck, Ice Cream Kush (the buds have little sparkles in them that apparently leave a creamy aftertaste) OG Kush, Black Diamond, and Purple Kush. No stems, no seeds, just bud.

There were vape sticks, the elegant little pens loaded with cannabis oil that do away with any need to inhale burning smoke.

For customers who want to ingest it through their pores, there's "bud soak," basically THC-loaded bath salts, and "whipped body cream."

And edibles, the modern-day equivalent of good old hash brownies: lemon eruption cookies, blue velvet cookies, strawberry chocolate chip, fudge, chocolates, peanut butter bites, gummy bears and something ominously called "Shatter," which the nice lady explained needed to be consumed in tiny amounts.

She had caramel- and bacon-flavoured "potcorn," cannabis maple syrup, olive oil, chocolate syrup, strawberry extract and honey.

Such variety. Such pleasant service, with a buzzy little vibe. And such reasonable prices. Which of course means the government will be along soon to shut the place down, and maybe even prosecute, because, you know, Canada.

In Canada, friendly, knowledgeable service with a wide range of reasonably priced products is exactly the opposite of what our leaders have in mind.

The Trudeau government's talking points have been all about stern reluctance, catering to suspicious conservatives. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her fellow Liberal ministers can't seem to discuss the subject without banging on about how ferociously and unapologetically they will administer severe penalties to anyone who violates their new rules. "Strict" seems to be Wilson-Raybould's favourite new word. To hear her, you'd think the government is cracking down, not legalizing.

In fact, after the new law received royal assent last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers rushed to warn everyone that just because it's been legalized doesn't mean it's legal yet.

The government wants to give provincial governments, most of which have decided to become pot dealers, four more months to set up no doubt joyless, antiseptic, retail monopolies, staffed by disapproving public servants who will make people line up to purchase weed (sorry, no edibles for the time being) at 30 per cent or so above the current market price of $7 a gram. Plus sales tax. Plus excise tax. Plus, show us your ID so we can probably put it into a government database, which sounds just great, doesn't it? (My neighbourhood store asks for proof you're at least 19, but records nothing).

Only in Canada could a legal product remain illegal, although Trudeau's implicit threat of continued prosecutions is a bit far fetched.

I asked a senior Ontario judge over dinner recently how police could make a possession charge stick now that the law has received royal assent. He told me not to be ridiculous.

Still, it's hard to imagine my new neighbourhood candy store has much of a future. I'm not identifying it by name or exact location, because I wish its owners all success in selling what is, after all, a perfectly legal product. But the fact is that in Canada, most governments don't tolerate competition in the sin business.

Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford might have done some rebellious bleating on the campaign trail about being a free-market kind of guy who'd like to see private-sector cannabis sales in Ontario, but now that he's not-yet-the-premier, he's already falling into line, quick-quick.

LCBO pot fortress

Outgoing premier Kathleen Wynne decided long ago that the mighty Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a tax-revenue-generating, price-fixing monopoly without peer, would expand its empire into cannabis once legalization takes place, and Ford, probably chastised by his revenue ministry, now seems to be conceding that Pot Fortress LCBO is unstoppable.

Which is hardly a surprise; former Ontario premier Mike Harris, the closest thing Ford has to an ideological predecessor, came into office back in the '90s promising to privatize the LCBO. Harris is long gone, and the LCBO is still telling Ontarians what they're allowed to buy and how much they have to pay for it.

Remember, gambling was once illegal in Canada, until governments starting opening casinos and setting themselves up as blackjack dealers and croupiers. You have to wonder when the first government-operated cathouses will open.

The hypocrisy is as thick as hash oil, but that's Canada. My favourite factoid is the conversion of Julian Fantino, formerly the chief of various city police forces and one-time commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, a tough-guy type who spent years happily criminalizing people for smoking dope. Fantino is now chief executive of what amounts to a huge cannabis grow-op. He says his views have evolved. I'll bet they have.

Anyway, we've come much later than 70 million or so Americans to this point, even though we're supposed to be so much more progressive. But at least something is happening. In celebration, I might just eat one little gummy bear, just one, and listen to some Cheech and Chong. Or watch some old SNL episodes. You know, from when it was so funny it made you hungry.

More cowbell.

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.