Marijuana advocates critical of Ontario legal weed sales plan

Ontario’s plan to sell marijuana similarly to how it currently allows alcohol sales has drawn sharp criticism

A bag of marijuana is held up at a medical marijuana dispensary in Vancouver on Friday May 1, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A bag of marijuana is held up at a medical marijuana dispensary in Vancouver on Friday May 1, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

TORONTO – Clients and advocates of storefront dispensaries say buying marijuana exclusively from stores regulated by Ontario’s provincial government will mean fewer options for medicinal users, little progress on eliminating the black market, and worse weed.

On Friday, Ontario became the first province to announce its plan for the sale and distribution of legalized marijuana. It will be sold through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and regulated similarly to how the province sells alcohol. Users must be over the age of 19, and are prohibited from consuming pot outside of private residences. The province will open 40 stores by next summer, when marijuana is legalized, and has said it will continue to crack down on illicit dispensaries, which will continue to be illegal.

MORE: Ontario plans dozens government-run marijuana shops

“At first I was pretty happy that they had a plan,” says Peter Thurley, who uses marijuana to reduce his consumption of opioids, which he was prescribed to help him manage the pain from a burst bowel. “But I quickly came to realize that that the plan as it’s laid out is essentially a full government monopoly.”

Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has said the province won’t act punitively, and will not criminally charge underage users caught with small amounts of marijuana.

But Thurley says he’s suspicious of that aim, given the federal government’s announcement Friday that they will spend upward of $274 million on enforcement.

“The government is talking about a public health approach on one hand, while the reality is, this was always going to be about government enforcement,” he says.

Leu Grant, who volunteers at Canna Connoisseurs in Toronto, agrees. Closing down community dispensaries and asking users to purchase weed from the government isn’t in the interest of consumers, she says.

“I think it’s very important to think about who this is benefiting,” she says. “It’s not really for accessibility of people who are sick.”

Grant says the regulation prohibiting the public consumption of marijuana signifies that the province isn’t prioritizing medicinal users. “A person who needs their medicine, and it happens to be marijuana, why can’t they take their medicine in a park?” she says.

“I would like to ask them why we’re allowed to smoke toxic cigarettes and drink alcohol in public, but not receive medicine,” says Sonya Serafin, another volunteer at Canna Connoisseurs.

MORE: Ottawa signals plan to stay clear as provinces roll out pot regulations

Connoisseurs dispenses marijuana only to prescription holders, and Grant says she sees people every day who benefit from the knowledge of the dispensary’s staff. Putting experienced workers out of a job and training new employees about marijuana is counterproductive, she says.

“How much does the government really know about growing?” she says. “The people who know the most about the growing, and the plant, and how to care for it, are people who have been criminalized. So now what we’re left with is people who don’t know anything, in suits, and they’re the ones who are benefiting.”

Thurley says she would like someone behind the counter who is knowledgeable about marijuana.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring in a whole host of new hires and set the system out in such a way that people who actually know about cannabis are excluded from the conversation.”

An inferior product could have significant repercussions, Grant says, because dissatisfaction with the government-sanctioned product could fuel more interest in black-market pot.

The price of pot could have similar consequences. The government hasn’t yet said how they plan to price or tax marijuana. “If they don’t make it cheap enough, then people are still going to be buying on the street,” says Serafin. “Is this really going to be helping?”

Because only 40 stores in the province will be open by next year, lack of accessibility will also be a deterrent for some users, Thurley says. If legal weed is both harder and more expensive to purchase, users are more likely to buy illegally.

RELATED: How big is Canada’s marijuana market, really?

“Most of (the new stores) will be in the GTA,” he says. “Imagine the kid from Huron County. Are they going to travel an hour and a half to Kitchener or London to pick up legal cannabis? Or are they going to go to the dealer that they’ve always gone to down the street?”

The government has said it will sell marijuana online to people who don’t live near major cities, but that’s still less convenient than a neighbourhood pot dealer, Thurley says.

He adds he would like to the see the government spend more money on cannabis research than on enforcement.

“There are so many opportunities here for the provincial government to do it right,” he says. “I would urge them that there’s no shame in pulling back and saying, you know what, we got this wrong.”

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