OPSEU’s Faulty Arguments for Government-Owned Cannabis Retail

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On July 31, 2017, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) released a position paper in response to the Ontario government’s open consultation on cannabis legalization.

The position paper lobbies for government-owned cannabis retail in Ontario, “similar to the model that exists today for alcohol distribution”.  While this is not a surprising position for OPSEU to take given the fact that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores that sell alcohol in the province are staffed by OPSEU unionized employees, some of the arguments put forward as to why OPSEU employees ought to be the gatekeepers for retail cannabis appear overstated and misguided.  Below is a discussion of some of OPSEU’s faulty arguments for government-owned cannabis retail.

OPSEU makes no recommendation on the minimum age for purchase and consumption but notes that it is important that the minimum age be enforced at the point of sale.  OPSEU goes on to state that “a crucial piece of ensuring this is enforced is making sure that those working at the point of sale are not motivated by profit, which could risk creating an incentive to sell cannabis to those below the minimum age.”  OPSEU notes that LBCO employees may risk their job if they sell to under-age individuals, whereas staff at privately owned retailers may risk their jobs if they do not meet their sales quotas.

In many (if not most) retail establishments, staff who work the counter are not owners.  I would venture to guess that in most cases, retail employees have no direct incentive to boost the bottom line of their employer through sales quotas, commissions, or bonuses.  Even if counter-staff did have such motivation, OPSEU’s argument assumes that whatever benefit may come from increasing profits would outweigh the potential for a 14 year prison sentence that could be imposed for selling to minors under the proposed Cannabis Act. 

Similarly, OPSEU’s statement that private retailers motivated by profit would be less likely to follow the rules to keep cannabis out of the hands of youth assumes that those retailers are willing to risk increased profit by selling to youth over 14 years of incarceration if caught doing so.

OPSEU notes that the LCBO has decades of experience enforcing minimum age on the sale of alcohol.  This is true.  However, OPSEU goes on to state that “this level of government oversight cannot be replicated in the private sector without significant cost to the government for policing and enforcement”.  No data is provided to support this argument.  It also ignores the fact that Brewer’s Retail (a privately owned company) also sells alcohol in the province and that private retailers are currently entrusted to sell tobacco products.

OPSEU notes that existing “private cannabis retail companies are not looking out for the best interest of communities or youth”.  That is a very broad and categorical statement.  In any event, OPSEU fails to mention that these “private cannabis retail companies” that operate in Ontario are illegal and are categorically owned and operated by people who are willing to operate outside the legal system.  No mention is made as to how licensed retailers in British Columbia or the United States, where retailers operate in a quasi-legal state, are doing when it comes to protecting communities and youth.

Lastly, OPSEU notes that “government-controlled sales of alcohol have been largely successful at keeping communities safe”.  Exactly what OPSEU means by “safe” is unclear.  Regardless, I know many who would take issue with this statement.

While it can be debated whether or not government-owned cannabis retail is the best option moving forward, many of the arguments put forward by OPSEU in its position paper are flawed and incomplete.

A complete copy of the position paper can be found here.

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