Using the past to structure the future: Envisioning cannabis legalization through the lens of liquor control

By Dan Malleck

Marijuana-Cannabis-Weed-Bud-GramIt is the moment that scholars fear: the question you cannot answer, in a forum where you’re presented as an expert. Such a case happened at the recent Rise of Big Cannabis symposium held in Saskatoon in March 2016. A cannabis activist asked the panel on legalization which distribution system would be better: the “dispensary” model or the “licensed producer” model. He was looking straight at me, and I had no answer.

Pondering it on the flight home, I began to reconsider the cannabis question. In this essay I (finally) address his question and discuss how it introduces a new complexity to an already complicated issue.

Since I study the histories of alcohol regulation and drug prohibition, I see the current debates around cannabis legalization as, at heart, a question of how to legalize a substance that is overgrown with complicated discourses rooted in moral and legal understandings of the substance. This definition also applies to alcohol, and end of liquor prohibition offers valuable examples that may provide insight into the way forward in cannabis legalization. History cannot predict the path to the future, but it can inform which direction to take.

For most of Canada, alcohol was prohibited from the First World War into the 1920s and 1930s. Although it may seem strange now, at the time alcohol was the most politically volatile substance there was. Decades-old temperance movements argued that the alcohol trade was destroying the country. These were not populated by sour, joyless spoilsports, but rather by socially progressive individuals who also urged policies like women’s suffrage, welfare programs, and accessible healthcare. Ending the liquor trade was part of a suite of progressive reforms aimed to strengthen the nation.

In Ontario, the end of prohibition was met with the creation of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). Every province created a similar provincial agency when ending prohibition (although their histories have notable differences). When I began to research the LCBO I expected to find an agency filled with temperance zealots who wanted to make alcohol as inaccessible as possible. I soon realized that this assumption was misguided. It was the LCBO’s job to restrict but permit alcohol. The LCBO’s main mandate was to maintain social order, but facilitate drinking. Being overly-restrictive would encourage further illegal behavior in Ontarians; but being overly permissive would confirm temperance fears that liquor control was inadequate, undermine the authority of the liquor control system, and threaten a return to prohibition.

In essence, the LCBO’s main job was to make itself relevant by making itself effective. Its regulations encouraged thirsty residents try their best to follow the rules; to reconstruct themselves along the lines of responsible citizenship. These “citizen drinkers” bought and consumed alcohol through legal means, following the (sometimes onerous) regulations of the authorities, and behaved themselves. To encourage such adherence, the provincial agency needed to be flexible, adapting the regulations to suit the changing conditions in the province (for example, when the prewar economic depression changed to a wartime economic boom more beverage rooms were needed to accommodate all the thirsty citizens) and also different conditions within a culturally-varied and geographically-dispersed province.

Although people today argue that the LCBO (like similar provincial agencies across the country) remains an overly restrictive temperance-minded agency, its ability to navigate these hazardous waters, past active temperance movement on one side and legions of thirsty drinkers on the other, reiterates the value of the liquor control system as a model to address cannabis legalization. Being sold through an agency that has a mandate to restrict but permit may allow cannabis to be integrated into the market (and into mainstream culture) in a way that will address concerns about its overuse and at the same time undermine illegal networks that have thrived on selling products of varying quality and with sometimes dangerous additives. Such a “cannabis control board” could help to reduce the negative images of cannabis, and make it what it should be, simply another legal recreational product.

That was my perspective before the Big Cannabis symposium and I still think a liquor control model would be an effective way of addressing some of the major social and cultural concerns around cannabis. But the question about dispensaries versus licensed producers made me reconsider whether my interpretation was overly simplistic, and did not recognize the diversity of approaches to cannabis sales in Canada.

The symposium revealed significant tensions between the two models of cannabis distribution. Dispensaries are essentially illegal, but depending upon the jurisdiction functionally legal. (Vancouver licenses them; Saskatoon shuts them down). Licensed Producers are allowed to ply their trade within a continually changing regulatory regime, vending cannabis mostly on line and distributing it through the mail. This mail-order system takes it out of the public eye, and ramps up the concerns Health Canada (and legal authorities) may have about illicit selling.

The (legal) licensed producers are not fond of the (illegal but often tolerated) dispensaries. So the dichotomy, dispensaries OR licensed producers, is understandable. But it is a false dichotomy and as liquor control history shows us, these systems can coexist.

This bifurcated system had parallels in post-prohibition Ontario. The LCBO created state-run stores to sell the harder stuff, mostly spirits and imported wine. Brewers and vintners were allowed to sell their products — the “softer” stuff — themselves. The breweries created a co-operative warehousing system from which customers could buy beer directly or via mail order wineries were allowed to have one store attached to the winery (later the proximity rule was eliminated).

This was an effective solution to dealing with selling a range of products of varying strengths and perceived dangers. Beer and wine did not hold the sort of historical and moral concern that spirits did. The temperance movement began as an attack on strong liquor, and in some quarters beer and wine were considered “temperance” drinks. So these products were considered much less problematic than spirits. The system created in Ontario, and which had similar formats elsewhere (in Quebec beer and Quebec wines were available in depanneurs; several other provinces allowed hotel off-sales of beer), reflects this varied meaning in different forms of alcohol.

Here is the false dichotomy of dispensaries versus licensed producers. The two systems can exist in tandem. Stores could retail a range of cannabis brands and manage the distribution according to the community values, while paying attention to existing concerns of social order and danger. Licensed producers, also inspected and regulated by the cannabis control agencies, can sell directly to their customers as they are currently operating.

The reason this system is important to consider are as much social and political as they are economic. As vilified as some liquor control agencies may be today, they were essential to ushering in an era of moderate but permitted sale and consumption of a substance that was sodden with negative meanings. The liquor control example offers a useful template for transitioning restricted but generally unproblematic substances like cannabis into a more acceptable, controlled but non-criminalized framework. It is a viable model that has worked well, and moreover could be easily adapted if other recreational drugs (quat? ecstasy?) are shifted into a legal framework.

A careful reading of the history of liquor control may answer some perplexing policy questions around the future of legal cannabis. History should not be used to predict the future, but it should contribute to an ongoing debate about how the future might unfold.

Dan Malleck is an associate professor at Brock University, where he teaches health policy and the history of medicine. He is the recent author of When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws.

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