sparc-pot-dispensary-2The last time the Liberals proposed decriminalizing marijuana, we faced the real prospect of being penalized by our neighbours to the south. Now it seems as though our American friends have a burgeoning legal marijuana market of their own.

Recent figures show that cannabis sales in Colorado alone (which legalized the substance two years ago) topped U.S.$996.2 million ($1.37 billion) in 2015, providing the state with $135 million in taxes. Even in California, where recreational pot remains technically illegal, legal medical marijuana sales were also estimated to be worth close to $1 billion last year. A recent report from ArcView Market Research estimated that as more states reform their drug laws, the industry could be worth $22 billion nationally by 2020.

It should therefore come as no surprise that so many Canadians want a piece of what is sure to be a lucrative market, now that the Liberals have pledged to legalize marijuana and the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the ban on medical cannabis patients growing their own bud.

Back in December, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne suggested that her government-owned liquor control board would be well suited to get into the drug trade: “It makes sense to me that the liquor distribution mechanism that we have in place — the LCBO — is very well-suited to putting in place the social responsibility aspects that would need to be in place.”

The unions representing workers in British Columbia’s liquor stores also want the ability to sell weed with their wine. “Liquor stores provide the most strictly controlled system for accessing a controlled substance, and are best suited for the retailing of non-medical marijuana. We have an effective warehousing, retail and distribution system in place, there is no need to reinvent the wheel,” said Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union.

More recently, two large drugstore chains, London Drugs and Shoppers Drug Mart, also expressed interest in selling medical marijuana. “We believe that it would be distributed — and should be distributed — through pharmacies, where pharmacies can help guide people to use this on a medical basis,” said a representative of Vancouver-based London Drugs.

They have a point: I see no reason why people suffering from chronic pain should not be able to get their hash from the same place they buy their codeine. Yet it seems to me that the only thing worse than buying pot from a shady-looking guy in a poorly lit parking lot would be standing in a long line at the drugstore, only to be told by an overworked pharmacist that it’s going to take 20 minutes to slap a label on the dime bag hanging on the shelf behind him.

But that’s no reason not to let them try. There would surely be a benefit for many people suffering from debilitating pain to fill their prescriptions at a neighbourhood pharmacy, rather than have to wait for a licensed producer to deliver the medication, as is currently the case. If the pharmacies were able to compete with existing medical marijuana providers and dispensaries, as well as any new distributors that spring up, consumers be able to decide what works best for them.

But we all know this is not what the drugstore chains are saying when they say they would be well suited to distribute cannabis. Anyone who has ever filled a prescription in this country knows that pharmacies are not very efficient at selling things, as the system largely seems to be set up to ensure doctors have a steady supply of patients and drug companies can charge insurance companies, rather than bill people directly. This is surely the system pharmacies want to see continue as medicinal, and recreational, cannabis becomes more accessible — i.e., one designed specifically to limit competition.

Pharmacies make some sense … if you want to wait 10 minutes while someone puts a sticker on the dime bag sitting on the shelf.

And we all know that Wynne doesn’t think the LCBO should be distributing cannabis because of its ability to compete with Joe’s Pot Shop or 7-Eleven. She wants it to have a monopoly like it does with liquor sales — small businesses and consumers be damned.

Yet if our experience with alcohol has taught us anything, it’s that restricting sales to a government-run monopoly or a corporate oligopoly is not in consumers’ best interests. Indeed, the only reason provinces have so much control over alcohol sales is because of the piecemeal system of prohibition we had, in which some provinces allowed alcohol sales, but other did not. It’s a historical aberration we would be wise not to repeat.

When coming up with a system for legalizing marijuana, the federal government should follow the examples of U.S. states like Colorado and Washington, which allow private businesses to sell pot and have seen numerous innovations in what products are available to consumers. If B.C. Liquor Stores and Rexall pharmacies want to compete with them, all the better. But the system of distribution should be based on free market principles, not a restrictive, monopolistic distribution system modelled after the Soviet Union, or the LCBO.