Will this election leave Ontario’s cannabis laws up in smoke?

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As Ontarians prepare to vote in what has been one of the most raucous provincial elections in recent memory, one issue that has not received a lot of attention is how this province plans to manage cannabis once it becomes legal. With recreational use of cannabis expected to come into effect on Canada Day, there still remains a cloud of uncertainty about whether the federal government will in fact meet that deadline. It’s also far from clear how Ontario plans to regulate and distribute the product. Under the proposed legislation, which is currently facing delays in the Senate, each province has the ability to set its own distribution methods. While many provincial governments have indicated how they plan to move forward, Ontario’s too-close-to-call election is causing a lot of anxiety for those looking to operate in this booming industry. Let’s break down where each party’s stands on this contentious issue and what it means for consumers.

The incumbent Liberals have announced that they intend to legally distribute cannabis through the Ontario Cannabis Store, a subsidiary of the government-run Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Should the Liberals win re-election, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s plan would see 40 of these stores rolled out across the province in 2018, and that number would double by July 2019. The Liberals believe that government-controlled distribution is the best course of action, and in a bid to crack down on the black market, the government will set up a special task force to shut down illegal storefronts that have popped up across the province since Prime Minister Trudeau announced that legalization was coming.

The Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford have signaled they are open to a free-market approach that would allow private retailers to legally sell cannabis. While Wynne called Ford’s plan reckless, Ford has since walked back his comments saying that he’s open to seeing how the Ontario Cannabis Store performs before allowing private retailers to enter the marketplace. Ford’s free-market approach could be a big hit with non-traditional conservative voters. According to a Nanos poll, over half of Ontarians would rather see regulated private retailers of cannabis than just the government-run stores.

The New Democratic Party has been visibly quiet on this issue. It’s worth noting that cannabis is not mentioned at all in their election platform. The party, under Andrea Horwath, has long supported the legalization of cannabis, but has so far offered little in terms of policy specifics on regulation and distribution. On the campaign trail, Horwath has been critical of Wynne’s plan to only roll out 40 stores over the first year, saying this small number of vendors will only turn people to the black market, given the province’s geographic size and population.

With recent polls showing the PCs and NDP running practically neck-and-neck, the cannabis industry is no doubt feeling rather restless waiting to see who comes to power, and for good reason. Billions of dollars are at stake, and as Canada prepares to become the first G7 nation to legalize cannabis, it’s safe to say that the whole world is watching.  

Provident Communications will be offering our weekly insights throughout the election. Led by me, Vice-President, Public Affairs, our team is ready to assist you with any opportunities or challenges that present themselves over the next week and beyond. For more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me at michelle@providentcomms.com.