Breakenridge: It’s the rules around the retailing of pot that matter, not who sells it

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There may be one upside in organized labour’s embrace of government owned and operated retail cannabis outlets in that it may convert some conservatives who were previously opposed to legalization into enthusiastic champions of private pot proprietors.

Otherwise, though, it’s hard to see any value in the proposition that the Alberta government be tasked with establishing and overseeing marijuana stores come next year. Last Friday marked the end of the Alberta government’s consultation process, and they had left the door open on this rather fundamental question.

It should really come as no surprise that groups such as the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees would come out in favour of the government monopoly option. I’m quite certain that there are other industries they would like to place in that category, and so since the question is being asked in this instance, it’s an easy and obvious “yes” for them.

Moreover, why would we expect the AUPE to oppose a proposal that would mean more government employees represented by the very same union?

Prior to forming government, you’d be hard pressed to find many issues where the NDP deviated in any significant way from the AUPE or the AFL. And while it predates the current NDP caucus, the party stridently opposed the end of government-run liquor stores. The window to undo that change has probably long closed, but the power to recreate such a system for marijuana must be awfully tempting.

So while their heart may be leaning in that direction, their head has occasionally demonstrated the ability to be more pragmatic. For one, there would be very little to be gained politically by opting for the government-monopoly model. As much as their friends in the AFL and AUPE would be disappointed with the private retail option, it’s not as though these groups are going to abandon the NDP over it, especially not in the face of a growing challenge from the United Conservative Party.

Moreover, this would be a political gift to the UCP. It would be pretty simple to put the NDP on the defensive over an ideological decision like this that would deliver a considerable price tag and little else. It would confirm some of the worst stereotypes about the NDP, while simultaneously hamstringing NDP efforts to talk about other issues that might conjure up negative stereotypes about the UCP.

Thanks to the work of one of the other opposition parties – the Alberta Party, specifically – we have a clearer idea of what it would cost the cash-strapped Alberta government to build and staff your happy neighbourhood government marijuana store.

The Alberta Party’s estimate pegs the start-up costs of such a system at $168 million, and that’s not counting the ongoing administrative costs of this new bureaucracy. Clearly, the private sector can respond much more quickly and efficiently, so this would be a needless waste of money and might actually harm efforts to eliminate the black market.

No one has ever argued that the retail of marijuana accessories and paraphernalia should be left to government owned and operated outlets. Nor, for that matter, has anyone argued the same for tobacco, and we’ve made tremendous strides in reducing the overall smoking rate, and the youth smoking rate in particular.

Not that the AFL or AUPE would have opposed such a system, but clearly, we’ve managed just fine without them. Because ultimately, what matters is the rules and regulations that oversee these retail outlets, not whether they’re owned by the state and staffed with unionized public servants.

Already, at least one NDP MLA has mused about a hybrid system, where the government creates the franchise model and entrepreneurs run the stores while paying the government a licensing fee. That’s probably still more government involvement than is needed, but hopefully, it’s a sign that the NDP is looking for a way to say no to the idea of a state monopoly.

Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge airs weekdays on NewsTalk 770. rob.breakenridge@corusent.com

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