The Alberta Federation of Labour is calling for the NDP government to set up a system of government-owned and operated cannabis stores in the province when recreational marijuana becomes legal next year.
With Alberta’s policy framework for legal cannabis released earlier this month, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said the province will only allow stand-alone stores to sell legal weed but it is still weighing whether to set up government-owned facilities or leave retail to the private sector.
Businesses looking to move into the recreational marijuana field in 2018 are opposed to a public system for cannabis sales, as are the province’s three main opposition parties.
But AFL president Gil McGowan said government stores are the best option to create good jobs and bring the greatest financial return to provincial coffers.
“The government should keep the broader public interest in mind and, in determining that interest, they should look at things like public revenue and health and safety and job creation as opposed to just the narrow interests of investors and the potential owners of stores,” he said in an interview.
The AFL, the umbrella group for organized labour in the province and an affiliate group with the NDP, is presenting a submission to the government under consultations that will run until Oct. 27.
As it considers its options, the government says a private retail system for cannabis likely would be more flexible in meeting consumer demand and would provide more economic opportunities for small business.
On the other hand, the province says government-owned stores would provide a greater level of oversight of marijuana being bought and sold and would likely generate more government revenue in the long run. A public system would require significant upfront costs for the cash-strapped government, however, potentially putting taxpayers dollars at risk.
Alberta has not had government-owned liquor stores since they were privatized under the Klein government in the 1990s. Proponents say the large network of private liquor stores in the province provides a model for marijuana retail once the Trudeau government follows through with legalization on July 1, 2018.
Peter Pilarski, president of the Canadian Cannabis Chamber, a legal marijuana industry group, argued this week that a government-owned system would also mean higher costs, in part due to unionized wages.
McGowan, however, says liquor privatization in Alberta is an argument for a public system for cannabis, saying that the Alberta government has given up substantial revenue over the last two decades. In 2012, the left-leaning Parkland Institute issued a report saying Alberta had forgone $1.5 billion since the early 1990s and the government had the lowest per-capita take from liquor of any province.
The labour leader also makes no bones about the fact that he is interested in seeing unionized government workers responsible for cannabis sales.
“I think it’s clear that the jobs in Alberta’s privatized liquor system are far inferior to the jobs that existed before privatization,” said McGowan, who fully expects government workers in cannabis stores would be represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees or another public sector union.
“That would be a positive outcome both for the workers and the broader public, because people who are paid better, have better job security and have at least a few benefits are also going to become more robust workers and in turn support the economy.”
The AUPE, the primary union for Alberta government workers, declined to comment.
Under the NDP’s framework, stores that sell legal marijuana will not be allowed to also sell liquor, tobacco or pharmaceuticals. The legal age for consumption will be 18.