Balancing the extremes in the legalization debate

Creating a working template that will please the majority of Canadians requires compromise and pragmatism, not idealism and absolutes

As the Canadian government begins to move towards implementing a regulated, commercial, adult cannabis market, the argument of what this system should look like has people from all sides of the argument seeking to stake their claim.

On one hand, some say only Licensed Producers should control every aspect of the recreational market, from production to distribution. After all, they are the only template at the moment that has passed enormous regulatory and security hurdles.  On the other hand, some say the market should have little to no regulations at all, and cannabis should be treated as an agricultural commodity. After all, it’s just a plant! Farmers should grow it just like tobacco or tomatoes or… poppies?

Neither of these extremes represent a particularly manageable or functional system. A system exclusive to only the current licensed producers will mean a need for a continuation of the expensive enforcement of prohibition-era laws against the thousands of black market producers who will continue to operate outside the system. In addition, a lack of diversity in terms of production and distribution will potentially lead to industry collusion and a form of oligopoly. A lack of diversity of producers and retailers will mean the potential for higher prices, which will not help the Liberal’s proposed plans of discouraging the black market.

Conversely, the notion that legalization of cannabis will suddenly, magically be treated like corn and grown on massive open-air farms any time soon is fanciful and impractical. Cannabis legalization, as the Liberals campaigned on it, is about regulation, not a free-for-all, and those regulations will mean needing to control supply and distribution to a degree that is not compatible with a free-for-all. It’s a worthy goal, and we might get there in a few decades, but it’s not happening any time soon.

Regardless of what the price is at a commercial store, regardless of concerns of a limited number of producers or sellers, if people have a legal right to produce their own cannabis, even on a small scale, it creates market pressures to keep commercial, retail prices low.

For legalization of cannabis to be successful and functional in terms of the stated goals of the Liberal Party (legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana”), we have to find the middle ground and compromise with those outside of the traditional ‘cannabis community’, even those who may still be very much opposed to the idea of legalization.

This means not only the approximately 40% of the polled public who oppose legalization entirely, but also those who support it only in a limited fashion. Issues like local zoning, personal production, and public consumption, along with how to deal with intoxicated driving, are all concerns held by many who still support legalization overall.  Trudeau promised to regulate, control, and limit access to marijuana – he didn’t run on there being no rules.

In the long term, we can likely work to lessen existing rules, just as has happened with the alcohol industry over time. But in the short term, isn’t it more politically sensible to look at some of the key issues that we can find common ground with others on? Building a new regulatory regime doesn’t mean everything is set in stone. It means it’s a working template. As long as key points are addressed within this template, they can be refined or expanded over time.

So what do we actually want? What is a system of regulated cannabis that will be acceptable to the majority?

One argument that has been made by many legalization activists in the past is that cannabis should be regulated ‘like alcohol’. But what does ‘like alcohol’ mean? In Canada, the federal government largely controls the rules for who produces it and where it is produced, and the provinces have a say in who sells it and where. In addition, alcohol used to be far more tightly regulated than it is today. It is an ongoing, evolving process.

For example, the way we purchased alcohol in Canada has not always been where it is today. Alcohol was prohibited in British Columbia from 1917 to 1921, but it wasn’t until 1962 that self-serve liquor stores were made legal in British Columbia. In the late 1970’s the province began to encourage the BC wine industry. Today in BC, I can walk in and select from dozens of brands of local or imported beers and wines in government stores, private stores and now even some grocery stores.

We are currently undergoing the process of shifting from nearly a century of prohibition, from a decades-long embedded black market, to one that is legal, taxed and regulated. Even after alcohol prohibition it took a long time to establish a diverse market. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. Because of this, I think transitioning into a system that helps normalize cannabis through regulation can benefit the argument for things like giant weed farms and no caps on personal production in the long run.

So what are the the most important ‘hills to die on’ for legalization activists? In this day and age if you spend valuable political capital arguing for perfect world absolutes, you die on a hill you won’t even win.

Here are the battles I believe we can win, that will most effectively address issues of cost and accessibility, while still being practical, pragmatic and implementable in the short term.

Personal production

Personal production rights are arguably the most important thing to lobby for currently. Regardless of what the price is at a commercial store, regardless of concerns of a limited number of producers or sellers, if people have a legal right to produce their own cannabis, even on a small scale, it creates market pressures to keep commercial, retail prices low.

The ‘6 plants’ number gets used a lot, I believe primarily because it’s the personal production limit established in Colorado, and Colorado was pretty much the first to do this. Uruguay has also talked about a 6 plant limit. I’m not attached to 6 plants, I think you could argue for more. Perhaps ten. Enough for personal use but not enough that people will be able to make a profit by reselling. This doesn’t include special caveats for medical users who might need more.

Colorado has a 6 plant limit, but there are no permits or oversight. You would only be held to that limit if you were reported for it, or if law enforcement happened to be in your home for another reason and notice. The point being, even a 6-10 plant limit is still a large step forward. Is it absurd in the context of cannabis being a plant that most of us think should be legal? Perhaps. Is it a practical starting point to get people used to it? I believe so.

It means a precedent for personal production, and it means getting society used to seeing plants in someone’s yard, or greenhouse, or sunroom. This is the process of normalization that can lead to greater plant limits down the road, even large scale, commercial outdoor farms. Starting at a small, reasonable number allows for this gradual normalization.

Things progress. Society demands looser restrictions when they see the sky isn’t falling. The important thing is it’s a start, a huge step forward, a chance to ease those around us into a conversation about how benign the plant actually is, and how it needn’t be a huge deal if it’s in my garden next to my apple tree and raspberries.

Local control

As with any commodity, more central market controls mean a less diverse market. A less diverse market means a potential for higher prices, collusion, regulatory capture and “rent seeking”. If everything is run by Ottawa, the likelihood of a diversity of growers and retailers decreases. The more say that provinces and even municipalities have in the process, as cities like Victoria and Vancouver are currently beginning to navigate, the more chance there is for independent producers and retailers to create competition.

The more local the control, the less the likelihood of monopolies/oligopolies being formed that many activists are concerned with. In addition, a legalization template that renders useless or even illegal the systems these cities are building will only create a disconnect between government and the public. For legalization to work, we need all levels of government working in as much harmony as possible.

Incremental change

We are establishing a framework. Frameworks can be changed over time. You don’t bet all on the perfect, and reject anything falling short of that absolute. You work to establish the key issues that you can expand on over time. If we establish things like personal production limits, they can be raised over time. These progressive steps take time, but they do progress. We will get there. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Originally posted December 14, 2015 Via