The Ontario government’s Pulp Fiction approach to pot legalization

In one of the most memorable exchanges in modern movie history, Jules and Vincent in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction rap about hash bars in Amsterdam. Fast forward 23 years and this film noir chat is strikingly similar to several provinces’ recent plans to legalize pot.

Steve Szentesi

In one of the most memorable exchanges in modern movie history, Jules and Vincent in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction rap about hash bars in Amsterdam:

Jules: So, tell me again about the hash bars.

Vincent: Okay, what you wanna know?

Jules: Hash is legal there, right?

Vincent: Yea, it’s legal, but it ain’t a hundred per cent legal. I mean, you can’t walk into a restaurant, roll a joint and start puffing away. You’re only supposed to smoke in your home or certain designated places.

Jules: And those are hash bars?

Vincent: It breaks down like this: it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it and if you’re the proprietor of a hash bar, it’s legal to sell it. It’s legal to carry it, but that doesn’t really matter ‘cause get a load of this, all right? If you get stopped by the cops in Amsterdam, it’s illegal for them to search you. I mean, that’s a right the cops in Amsterdam don’t have.

Fast forward 23 years and this film noir chat is strikingly similar to several provinces’ recent plans to legalize pot. The legal part, however, is a little difficult to spot among the rather paternalistic and heavily regulated thicket of prohibitions.

For example, earlier this month, Alberta announced its draft Cannabis Framework. Highlights include restrictions on age (minimum age of 18), distribution (a plan to manage wholesale distribution), retailing (stores will only be able to sell pot — and not co-retail pot with alcohol) and production (a proposed limit of up to four plants per private household). Alberta is also proposing to limit the amount of pot one can possess to 30 grams and to impose strict restrictions on advertising and packaging.

Earlier this fall, Ontario also announced its framework for the sale of pot in the province, under its framework plan entitled Ontario’s Safe and Sensible Framework to Manage Federal Legalization of Cannabis. Like Alberta, it also plans, among other things, to impose age, distribution and drunk — er, high? — driving restrictions. In announcing the new framework, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said that its plan is meant to promote public health and “protect Ontario’s people.”

Admittedly, it’s difficult to argue with some of the common proposed limits of these two provincial plans — for example, legal age for use (not sure we want 10-year-olds smoking pot just yet), impaired driving rules and government regulation of production to ensure quality and safety. If the seemingly constant stream of opioid-overdose-related media reports is any indication, it certainly seems sensible to know what will be in our newly legalized pot.

Some of Ontario’s proposals, however, seem far harder to understand or justify other than perhaps from purely political or labour relations perspectives. For example, while Alberta has not finalized who may own and operate retail outlets — and, indeed, it may ultimately permit private operators like its current liquor retailing system — Ontario has announced that pot shops will only be government owned and operated by the LCBO.  According to the government, “illicit cannabis dispensaries are not and will not be legal retailers.”

In addition, somewhat strangely, Ontario (unlike Alberta) is also proposing to prohibit pot smoking in public places — not merely workplaces and not only near schools but all public places. So this (likely) soon-to-be-legal product will be illegal to smoke anywhere outside your home. The distinction between smoking cigarettes in public but not pot is unclear. 

Ontario has also said that its pricing and taxation decisions will be informed by “focusing on the objectives of discouraging consumption and eliminating the illegal market.”  Discouraging consumption? Huh? So, evidently, while Ontario wants to discourage the use of a soon-to-be-legal product (well, legal in the skewed Pulp Fiction sense), it seems quite motivated indeed to generate revenues from its exclusive distribution, sale and taxation.

Not surprisingly, Ontario’s recent pot rollout plan is cast in the soothing and reassuring language of sensibility, safety and protection. One can’t help but wonder, however, why the government would not let private operators enter and compete in this expectedly soon-to-be-significant market. One would almost guess that an election was approaching.

Also puzzling, as I’ve said, is why a legal substance should be relegated to use in private residences. These reforms seem considerably more Victorian than 21st century, which perhaps is not surprising in a province that seems to think that drinking a beer or smoking a joint in public would lead to societal ruin.

Returning to the competition point, as Alberta has rightly pointed out in its initial pot legalization PR materials, allowing regulated private sales would likely have a number of benefits, including flexibility in meeting consumer demand, encouraging more consumers to purchase from legal sources, increased access and also new small business opportunities. Alberta also doesn’t appear to share Ontario’s aversion to smoking a joint in public.

In sum, my modest proposal for Ontario as it rolls out its new pot legalization plans is: Loosen up a little — it’s 2017. Allow private operators to compete (regulate them if it makes you feel better and by all means control quality) and consider opening the door to a few hash bars. Trust me, if Londoners can drink pints in public and the folks in Amsterdam can hang out in hash bars, the sky will not fall in Ontario.



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