Quebec consultations complete, now for decisions

Clues have begun to emerge regarding the government’s orientations

In the aftermath of the public consultations on the framework for cannabis sales, which concluded without consensus or controversy, the countdown is now on for decisions to be made, as several clues begin to emerge regarding the government’s orientations.

A therapeutic exercise

With more than 12,000 Quebecers completing the online questionnaire or having participated in the public consultations and some 120 organizations having submitted essays or appeared at the hearings, it is fair to say that the public consultations were a success from participation standpoint.

However, the real achievement was the nuance and realism that the debates garnered. The legalization of cannabis was tackled in a far more practical way, which helped take the public conversation beyond the binary "for or against" debate. Despite the fact that this question was never formally on the agenda, it managed to shine through the majority of discussions prior to the consultations.

These innuendos have now been cut short. Remaining firm on the policy’s objectives, Minister Charlebois managed to force some coherence into the proposals being made, and exposed the other side of some cautionary approaches by highlighting the unintended consequences they may have. For instance, to organizations pushing for a legal age of 21 years, she pointed out the risks of having youth turn to the black market.

The burning question of sales and distribution

One thing we can find relief in is that the well-meaning, yet unrealistic option of having pot sold by non-profit organizations seems to have been abandoned.

Organizations working in the sphere of public health and youth protection now see a state monopoly as the best way of isolating cannabis sales from a profit-driven logic and of ensuring that prevention is done on-site at sales points. Unions see this as a way to protect their position in the distribution of regulated substances and to keep the profits from pot sales within Quebec. As a result, several participants advocated for the government-run model during the consultations.

There were, however, advocates for a private model. The Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec (Quebec’s independent grocers’ association) and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business joined Couche-Tard (Mac’s) and the Conseil du patronat du Québec (Quebec’s employers’ council) in defense of private-sector distribution, which would help ensure broad accessibility and bring about the competitive prices needed to block the black market. This proposal enjoys the support of the industry’s few local entrepreneurs; however, it must be said that many were absent during the hearings.

Debate within the government

It is hard to say exactly how the government will position itself, and several conflicting points of view coexist within the interdepartmental committee in charge of this file. Minister Charlebois appears to be leaning toward a system of government-run stores, while Minister of Public Safety Martin Coiteux is advocating for the private model. We are unsure exactly which model Finance Minister Carlos Leitao prefers—only that he doesn’t intend for cannabis to be sold at the SAQ on the shelves “next to the Portuguese wines.” Considering his initial opposition to legalization, it is hard to see how he could advocate for a free-market model. He may be the one behind the idea of private sector-operated government franchises. This idea is new to the debate, but it may represent a middle ground for diametrically opposed opinions, as well as a means to maintain unity within the cabinet council.

The Ontario precedent

Will Ontario’s decision to entrust cannabis sales to a Crown corporation influence the Quebec model? Very possibly. We just saw a similar example of policy emulation with the Quebec government’s decision to ban home growing.

However, several other factors specific to the Quebec context are in play. Quebec’s under-developed cannabis industry suggests that any announcement to launch a government monopoly would make fewer waves than it did in Ontario. Quebec’s only authorized producer, Hydropothecary, is not part of the traditional Québec Inc., who has remained tight-lipped regarding this matter and is unlikely to rally around its cause. In addition, the soon-to-be LP’s who are currently awaiting licenses will likely bank on some degree of protectionism by the province to catch up to market leaders and may not mind the facilities that a single state distributor may bring.

The passions that are currently riding high in the face of Ontario’s decision are therefore unlikely to be echoed in Quebec. That said, the Government of Ontario’s announcement highlighted the practical limits of the government model with respect to timelines, costs and impacts on the black market. And since the SAQ has over 400 stores and almost as many agency branches run inside third-party businesses, the image that most Quebecers have of a government monopoly is likely one that includes more outlets than the number announced by Queen’s Park. Some may therefore not welcome a half-hearted solution.

The Ontario case exemplifies the dilemma that the Quebec government is now facing, but it also provides an opportunity to refine the ideas that are currently under discussion.

- Caroline Lavoie, translated by Adrian Adams

Featured image by Benson Kua.

Editor's Note: This article has been translated from the original, available here. Caroline Lavoie is a public affairs consultant at Octane, where she advises on cannabis legalization. Through mandates with industry actors and her  activities in this emerging sector, Caroline has developed an expertise that is unique in Quebec. With a public policy background, she also contributes to the public debate on this issue as a conference speaker and blogger. Her previous experience with policy institutes at the Canadian and international levels gives her a cross-cutting outlook on public affairs and allows her to devise strategies adapted for the specific market that is Quebec.

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