Doug Ford was just chosen leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party last Saturday and already he’s coming up with what some might call radical ideas.
Ford proposed a free market for the sale of cannabis Tuesday. That is, once it becomes legal, which could come this summer or early fall.
“I don’t believe in the government sticking their hands in our lives all the time. I believe in letting the market dictate,” he told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning on Tuesday.
“We’re going down a path that no one really knows,” Ford said about his plans for pot legalization. “I have been open to a fair market and letting the markets dictate. I don’t like the government controlling anything no matter what it is…. I’m open to a free market and I’m going to consult with our caucus…. I don’t believe in the government sticking their hands in our lives all the time. I believe in letting the market dictate.”
What’s all that mean?
The province already controls the liquor and beer stores in Ontario. Does Ford want to include their products in the free market too? Well, he didn’t say in the CBC Ottawa Morning program, but you have to wonder.
After all, current Ontario Premier, Liberal Kathleen Wynne, already opened up beer sales in some grocery stores in Ontario.
“Our government is making everyday life a bit easier so that people can spend more time doing what they like to do,” said Wynne, back in December of 2015, emphasizing the importance of consumer choice and convenience.
In all, 58 stores — 45 chain grocers and 13 independents — were approved to sell beer in their stores in the first wave of what will eventually be 450 of Ontario’s 1,500 supermarkets. But that doesn’t mean there’s a free market for beer in grocery stores. The stores still have to sell the product at government-controlled prices.
But let’s back up for a minute. First, of all, Ford’s Conservatives aren’t even the ruling party. And isn’t money the whole reason the Ontario government is excited about joining the feds in the marketing of pot? After all, the Ontario government, at last count, was $288 billion in debt. The interest on the debt alone in 2013 was $10.3 billion.
Ontario needs cash. And if Ontario wants the cash, it has to find a way to stick its nose into regulating a money-making industry such as pot.
In a National Post article back in 2016, one businesswoman marketing medical marijuana spoke about the prospects for her business in a free, open market.
“There was a massive market available,” the woman, who didn’t want her full name used, said. “That definitely was the original motivation.
“But as I got more into it, and as I started interacting with more patients on a daily basis and seeing the difference (cannabis) made, it has motivated me even more. But originally, it was purely the business side of me that saw a huge market gap.”
Both campaigners and the capitalists are eager for the Trudeau government to do as it promised and remove the legal prohibitions hanging over their retail operations, The National Post article indicated. But they are suspicious that Ottawa’s still-under-discussion plans for legalizing marijuana will favour corporate interests and freeze out the independents.
“I don’t really know what to expect from the Trudeau government. What we thought was going to happen and what has happened thus far are just completely opposite sides of the spectrum,” the woman who spoke to the newspaper said.
The woman, who some called the Queen of Cannabis, and other operators of pot dispensaries fully expect that large, well-financed companies will muscle their way into the retail space once recreational marijuana sales become legal. If not them, it may be government agencies with a model similar to provincial liquor commissions.
But if they were worried about what the Trudeau government might do on the federal level with the sale of pot, they have to be concerned at what Ford and other provincial party leaders might do if they are in government when and if Trudeau opens the floodgates and allows the sale of recreational marijuana.
The current Ontario Liberal plan to sell recreational cannabis is to establish government-run brick-and-mortar and online stores, in a fashion similar to the LCBO. It will be called the Ontario Cannabis Store.
It’s a model that Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union president Warren “Smokey” Thomas believes is the correct one.
Thomas was on CFRA’s News and Views with Rob Snow Tuesday, before Ford’s interview, and had a blunt response when asked about Ford’s suggestion to other media that cannabis sales should be given over to the private sector.
“That’s stupid,” Thomas says. “Every expert in the field of addictions, harm reduction, public safety has come around to believe that Kathleen Wynne got it right. I look forward to the opportunity to convince [Ford] otherwise.”
But Ford wouldn’t stop at pot. His admitted dislike of monopolies and government interference extends to alcohol sales as well.
“Again, let the market dictate,” Ford said. “If the LCBO can compete, that’s great, but do you know what’s happened? They’ve hand-picked certain retailers. I’ve never seen a more unfair process in my entire life.
You pick ABC company but DEF doesn’t get to distribute.”
The Ontario government says there are over 200 grocery stores that allow the sale of beer and cider in the province.
And 70 of those are also allowed to sell wine.
“Do you think it’s fair that we just hand-pick a couple of stores and let them do it instead of let everyone do it? It’s unfair competition to other retailers,” Ford says.
Ford’s suggestions don’t carry much weight now. But watch out if the PCs take back the provincial government in an election, which has to come before June 7.
Jeff Wilkinson is a Senior Politics Reporter at Debate Report covering provincial and national politics, . Before joining Debate Report, Jeff worked on several provincial campaigns including Jack Layton. Jeff has worked as a freelance journalist in Toronto, having been published by over 20 outlets including CBC, the Center for Media and VICE.com.