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EDITORIAL: Caution best option on marijuana access

The P.E.I. government outlined more preliminary directions for cannabis legislation on January 16. From left, are Health Minister Robert Mitchell, Finance Minister Heath MacDonald and Justice Minister Jordan Brown. 

Guardian photo / Dave Stewart
The P.E.I. government outlined more preliminary directions for cannabis legislation on January 16. From left, are Health Minister Robert Mitchell, Finance Minister Heath MacDonald and Justice Minister Jordan Brown. Guardian photo / Dave Stewart - The Guardian

This is new territory for governments and there is no need to flood the market with outlets or drug choices.

Despite criticism from a consumer advocacy group, the province is wise to proceed cautiously with regulations governing the pending legalization of marijuana. Islanders should be able to legally light up July 1 but there are hints from Ottawa of a delay by several weeks.

More information on P.E.I.’s regulations was released last week, adding details to plans announced in early December. Most of the provincial rules seem reasonable, and based on recent polls and analysis, caution is advisable.

It appears that many Islanders don’t plan to use marijuana. It’s estimated that approximately 20 per cent use the drug now, and those numbers are not expected to move significantly upwards after July 1.

This week, Corporate Research Associates confirmed earlier polls and projections – there won’t be any stampede by Atlantic Canadians to purchase marijuana, especially on P.E.I.

So why would the province open a large number of outlets to sell marijuana when the demand is unknown and questionable?

It was disappointing last year when the Atlantic provinces failed to come together for joint co-operation on marijuana. The provinces opted to go separate ways on production, distribution, marketing, enforcement and public education. If they can’t agree on interprovincial rules for liquor, how did we expect co-operation on marijuana?

The most controversial decisions by the government last week were to limit the number of provincially-run retail outlets to four and the number of suppliers to three. The consumer group says these are insufficient to meet demand, and warned that the lack of choice and access will keep an illegal black market alive.

The province plans to go with government-operated retail outlets in Charlottetown, Summerside, West Prince and Montague. People wishing to buy pot can also order on-line for home delivery. This seems prudent until demand and costs are determined.

The consumer group says retail outlets should be decided by market demand. That won’t be known until well after July 1. The group argues that limiting possession to 30 grams and access to three companies is unfair – comparing it to only having three brands of beer or wine available in liquor stores.

But people are very nervous and cautious near marijuana, and it’s likely that Islanders wishing to use the drug will buy it legally and in small quantities, or not at all. The four stores and e-commerce option should eliminate the black market as long as prices are competitive.

If the demand proves greater than projected, the province has the option of increasing the number of retail outlets and the number of suppliers. This is new territory for governments and there is no need to flood the market with outlets or drug choices.

Private sector outlets are always a future option, but for now, government control in public outlets seems the more prudent course. The market may dictate changes but the responsible decision is to proceed with caution.

Maybe the same approach to alcohol will work for recreational marijuana at some point. But too many questions remain for such a gamble at this time.

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