Legalization is here (hooray), but burning questions remain on cannabis sales in Ontario

Canada's Senate has approved the Cannabis Act, but the province's proposed cannabis monopoly appears wholly unprepared for the task of selling weed



Legalization has arrived. The Senate approved Bill C-45 last night. All that remains is for  Royal Assent later this week and the federal government to set a proclamation date, and it will be time to celebrate.

But when it comes to recreational cannabis sales in Ontario, burning questions remain, including what kind of monopoly the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation (OCRC) tasked with selling legal weed will turn out to be.

To paraphrase the Wizard of Oz’s Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, what the munchkins of Ontario want to know is: will it be a good monopoly or a bad monopoly?

The answer to that question is still very hazy.

The OCRC, the subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) that will be responsible for recreational cannabis sales through the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), has all but receded from public view in recent months. Left in its wake is confusion.

While other provinces are charging ahead – New Brunswick, for instance, has recently unveiled its sleek black-and-white Cannabis NB store design – a shroud of secrecy surrounds legal sales in Ontario.

After having passed the legislation that put cannabis under the exclusive purview of the LCBO, the LCBO has almost completely disappeared from the conversation, declining requests for interviews on what legalization will look like from several media outlets. In response to NOW’s requests for an interview, an LCBO spokesperson says, “We look forward to sharing more information soon, and that any updates, “would be posted to OCSCannabisUpdates.com.”

Recently at an LCBO location opening, LCBO president George Soleas said that consumers shouldn’t bank on seeing any stores open until “most likely sometime in September.” Federal pot czar Bill Blair acknowledged this week that the government won’t be ready to roll on legalization until then.

But there has otherwise been a lack of communication on how the OCRC plans on dealing with its responsibility to sell cannabis.

Take, for instance, its website launched late last year as a place where Ontarians can get updates on the status of the Ontario cannabis industry. It’s only been updated twice in the last six months.

The last update was April 11, when the LCBO announced the locations of the first four stores  – Guelph, Kingston, Toronto and Thunder Bay – managing to immediately piss off people on all sides of the issue. Critics in Toronto claimed the proposed location was too close to a school. In Kingston, the proposed location was virtually in the middle of nowhere.

In Ottawa, an expected announcement about a location has been put on the back burner indefinitely. Even the mayor has no clue.

“There was going to be some announcement,” Ottawa mayor Jim Watson told the CBC in late April, “and it never came to fruition. I don’t know what happened. They assured us that they would give us a heads-up at least by a day, but I haven’t gotten any word on that.”

Two months later, nothing has changed. So far, locations in 29 municipalities have been announced with 40 stores proposed to open in 2018, which is supposed to grow to 80 by 2019 and 150 by 2020.

But the backlash over store locations sent the LCBO back to the drawing board, only to leave more people in the dark.

Under the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website, a number of gaps remain, including where product will come from (the OCS closed its procurement process May 2) and who will be delivering product ordered from the stores’ proposed online channels.

The website states that OCRC is currently “considering opportunities to source cannabis from producers that will be licensed by the federal government to produce cannabis for recreational purposes.” And that, “information on suppliers that will source Ontario’s retail stores and online channel will be available closer to summer 2018.”

The situation would be laughable if it weren’t also such a failure of transparency.

These are not just pedantic complaints by those who feel out of the loop. To transition consumers over to the legal market requires a visible, prominent legal market. To get people to start buying weed legally they ought to have some advance notice as to where that transaction might physically take place. People need to know what is going on with cannabis – what to expect, and when and where to expect it. And, by and large, they don’t.

The OCRC’s scarce public presence creates logistical problems for many communities trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of cannabis legalization, with only a few months left to go.

In the end, the lack of clarity is a problem that the OCRC – a taxpayer-owned corporation – created for itself, but also one it could easily solve.

Consumer monopolies, such as the one Ontario is currently in the process of erecting to sell cannabis, at best offer a form of dependency and regulation. At worst, they erect Byzantine rule structures and wield a decision-making power that can, at times, seem arbitrary.

By even the most generous interpretation, the LCBO appears wholly unprepared – whether or not on purpose – for the task of selling weed.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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