Cost of Living

Cannabis, liquor businesses see less red tape due to COVID-19

Many government authorities have relaxed many regulations connected to things such as cannabis or liquor sales, sometimes considered near-impossible to change.

Some Canadian outfits applaud temporary relaxation of rules made during pandemic

Jay MacRaild shows one of Añejo Restaurant Group's take-home margarita kits in Calgary. (Falice Chin/CBC)
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While social programs have expanded immensely in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, government authorities have also relaxed many regulations that were once deemed near-impossible to change — such as when and where alcohol can be sold, or who is allowed to deliver cannabis to you.

From health-care licensing to food labelling, deregulation has become one of the responses to try and expedite otherwise lengthier approval processes during a health crisis. 

But multiple levels of government will, presumably, have to decide which changes should stick in the post COVID-world.

At least one advocacy group has already started keeping score of what rules have been eased so far, turning them into a wishlist of sorts. 

Some liquor restrictions eliminated rapidly

For Jay MacRaild, the changes around liquor happened -- in his words, "overnight."

Somebody who's probably a drinker just made the decision … I think they're just trying to clear any roadblocks for our industry.- Jay MacRaild, Añejo Restaurant Group

The branch manager of the Calgary-based Añejo Restaurant Group has been busy preparing margarita kits for curbside pickup since the Government of Alberta declared a state of public health emergency in mid-March.

With that declaration also came a temporary lift on booze restrictions.

"I don't know, somebody who's probably a drinker just made the decision," said MacRaild. "I think they're just trying to clear any roadblocks for our industry."

Suddenly, restaurants in Alberta were allowed to sell alcohol to customers in ways they never dreamt of. That included delivery, curbside pickup or even do-it-yourself kits so customers could mix their own cocktails at home. 

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MacRaild said his restaurants' margarita kits are so popular, people lined up around the block on Cinqo de Mayo to pick up their orders. 

"I think most of our customers that are rolling in here are interested in margarita kits and they happen to get some tacos," said MacRaild. "I don't think it's the other way around."

"Most of our customers that are rolling in here are interested in margarita kits and they happen to get some tacos," according to Jay MacRaild with Calgary's Añejo restaurant. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Like many restaurants across the country, Añejo is bleeding cash. But MacRaild said the change in liquor restriction has at least allowed the business -- known for its huge selection of tequila offerings -- to keep the brand alive. 

"I, for one, would love to see this change stay permanently," said MacRaild. 

"I don't think this is going to be a widespread phenomenon for most licensed establishments," he added. "But for places that are bar-centric like we are and have a great cocktail program like we do, I think there's a market for them to expand and increase revenue."

Amendments made to the province's Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Regulation to allow restaurants to sell alcohol through takeout or delivery will not automatically reverse when the public health order expires on June 15, according to Alberta's liquor regulator.

It would take deliberate political action to undo this change in Alberta.

Ontario considers keeping pot delivery changes

A similar easing of restrictions is happening in parts of Canada around cannabis.

Ontario, for example, lifted a ban on cannabis delivery by private retailers. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only the provincially-run Ontario Cannabis Store was allowed to deliver recreational pot to consumers. The province punted that rule shortly after adding cannabis retailers to its list of essential services. 

For Mimi Lam, CEO and co-founder of Superette, the change has been a huge blessing. It means she can now expand the reach of her private cannabis store in Ottawa. 

"We have a few drivers and they are on shift," Lam explained.

"We intake all the orders and we map out the routes and make sure that there is an effective way for the drivers to deliver all the products and make sure consumers get their products within a couple of hours."

Mimi Lam is the co-founder of Ottawa cannabis store Superette, and is taking advantage of relaxed regulations to allow for pot delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Mimi Lam)

Lam estimated around 20 per cent of her clients' orders are now made for delivery, with upwards of 100 orders a day.

The Doug Ford government in Ontario hasn't ruled out making the change permanent.

"My hope is that the government is going to treat the cannabis industry equally as other industries and really champion it," said Lam.

"The more deregulation there is, the more championing there is by key policy makers, the brighter the future for this sector," she said. 

What makes a regulation dysfunctional?

Canadian economist Steve Globerman, senior fellow with the Fraser Institute, a free-market think-tank, has developed a list of criteria to determine whether a regulation in question is redundant, unnecessary or dysfunctional.

It goes something like this:

  • Is the regulation serving any useful purpose at this point in time?
  • Is there a cheaper way to achieve the same purpose?
  • Can the market system take care of the problem?
  • Does the regulation conflict with another regulation?
  • Is the regulation transparent? Can a reasonable person understand it?

"Obviously no one wants deregulation to be motivated by a health crisis," said Globerman, who said that generally, most business regulations accumulate over time.

"There may have been some purpose for it sometime in the past. And I emphasize 'may have been some purpose for it' but often that purpose has been outmoded by developments, new technology, more knowledge and economic imperatives," said Globerman.

Winnipeg's Hermanos restaurant is offering delivery and curbside pickup during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

According to Globerman, it's very rare for regulatory agencies to systematically go back and look through their regulations. He also said the answer isn't always binary, as in regulation versus no regulation.

Sometimes, he said, it's about tweaking an existing rule.

Be careful of unintended consequences

Does that mean governments should forge ahead with a slew of deregulations?

Not so fast, according to experts on a different part of the spectrum.

"I just think we have to be careful that we don't end up getting too comfortable with the idea of lumping in public protections as 'red tape,' as things that maybe we should be getting rid of in general," said Stuart Trew, editor of The Monitor from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think-tank.

"We do need regulators to be nimble for exactly these kinds of situations where we need them to be able to act quickly, make exceptions to rules, draft temporary rules or make other changes to protect people," he said.  

"But we don't want them to be acting negligently."

Rules are in place for a reason, added Trew. The social ills of alcoholism, for example, are complicated.

So while lifting liquor restrictions might prove convenient for consumers, he said it could also lead to graver societal problems down the line.

"I mean I enjoy a beer every now and then," said Trew.

"But do we need to be able to get it in every single store on my street? That's kind of excessive."


Written and produced by Falice Chin.
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