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How Québec’s Cannabis Legalization Falls Short in Serving its Citizens

August 2, 2018
By: 
Kira London-Nadeau
Regional Representative, Central Canada
National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education

In early June 2018, Bill 157 – Québec’s provincial regulations document for the legalization of nonmedical cannabis – was voted in by the National Assembly. The Bill details all the aspects that its federal counterpart, Bill C-45, left up to the provinces to decide: distribution, retail, minimum age for purchase, consumption spaces, and many other pieces of the complex legalization puzzle. From the very beginning of the Bill’s deliberation, the Liberal provincial government was clear that these regulations would be devised to promote Québécers’ health and not revenue generation. However, certain regulatory decisions risk hurting citizens of the province rather than serving them.

To begin, the highly-publicized and contentious issue of growing cannabis at home culminated in the provincial government banning the practice, although the federal law would allow the cultivation of up to four plants. This decision was made mainly out of fear of diversion of product and facilitated access to cannabis by underaged people, and because policing the exact number of plants in a household would pose a practical nightmare.

While these are important considerations, although one might question the extent to which they do pose real problems, banning home grown cannabis fails to protect citizens in several ways. Growing cannabis at home is a much less expensive option than purchasing it from a retailer, even with prices as low as $6/gram, as is the aim of the Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), which will have a monopoly on cannabis distribution and sale. For lower-income Québécers, this may be a powerful incentive to either break the law by partaking in home grow, or seek out options in the illicit market. More than just a financial issue, growing cannabis at home has been reported as a fulfilling activity that provides growers with both a sense of pride and control over their supply of cannabis. Altogether, this means that banning home grow thwarts both financial and wellness needs, especially for low-income citizens.

Even within the established infrastructure of the SQDC, residents are not prioritized. At $14/hour, employees will be paid 70% of what workers make at the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), of which the SQDC is a subsidiary. In other words, the employment provided by nonmedical cannabis legalization in Québec to residents of the province is dismal compared to what is currently being offered for selling alcohol. Furthermore, the SQDC will not allow individuals with a criminal record (including one for cannabis possession) to work in its stores. Thus, those who have suffered unjustly from cannabis prohibition will not be given the opportunity to engage in the legal market.

Quality of employment is not the only front on which Québec supports the alcohol industry more than the emerging cannabis space. The SQDC plans to regulate its retail locations much more strictly than those of the SAQ. Contrary to the SAQ, the SQDC will not welcome underaged patrons nor allow its clients to manipulate products themselves. The staff at the SQDC will be trained in safety recommendations for consuming cannabis, but will not be tasked with providing information that is oriented toward sales, such as strain recommendations. The result of these regulations is simple: buying alcohol will be more enjoyable and less stigmatizing than purchasing cannabis, and parents can bring their children to the former but not the latter. This retail environment alone sends the message that cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol, when empirical research suggests the opposite. These kinds of sociocultural biases may lead consumers to select a more dangerous and harmful drug over a safer, but more highly-regulated one.

Despite these limitations, Québec has nonetheless made certain regulatory decisions that are bolder than the majority of the other provinces, such as allowing public consumption of cannabis. This allows users, especially those who may not be able to consume at home, to consume safely and without hiding their use.

Even so, the issues mentioned above are major considerations that prevent nonmedical cannabis legalization in Québec from fully benefitting residents. This province has established the protection of its residents as its main aim for nonmedical cannabis legalization. However, an approach that removes financially-beneficial options for consumers, creates comparatively low-paying jobs despite their status as government employment, does not create opportunities for those previously criminalized for cannabis possession, and posits cannabis as more dangerous than alcohol through a slew of regulatory decisions for cannabis retail falls well short of this aim.