Legalization is well underway in Alberta, with a final initial framework to be released later this year. Political change is also in high swing, with the recent merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties into the United Conservative Party, or UCP.
What does this mean for legalization? In the immediate future, not all that much, besides the usual rhetoric and jabs between parties. Alberta’s next election will be between March 1st and May 31st 2019.
Recent polling suggests the UCP would enjoy the support of 57% of undecided and leaning voters, which would give them a majority government in the next election. What does that mean for legalization? The answer is in the UCP leadership race.
There are 3 contenders still in the running: Jason Kenney, Brian Jean, and Doug Schweitzer, and as a group they have not had a lot to say about legalization in Alberta.
Kenney, a former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, is no fan of Justin Trudeau or his policies. Asked about legal cannabis back in 2015, Kenney’s response was generally not favourable towards cannabis, including accusing the federal liberals of wanting to establish brothels and forcing communities to establish ‘illegal drug injection sites’. As leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, his comments were more conciliatory, saying he prefers decriminalization but realizes legal cannabis is coming.
Brian Jean became leader of the Wildrose in 2015, after some controversial floor crossings to the Progressive Conservatives. Wildrose justice critic Angela Pitt suggested the NDP should ask the government for more time, similar to Premier Brian Pallister of Manitoba. Jean himself has not had much to say on the cannabis file, however given his political history in Alberta he is even less likely than Kenney to roll back the final Alberta cannabis framework completely.
Doug Schweitzer has similarly not had much to say about cannabis, but considers himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate. Schweitzer has been outspoken in opposition to some socially conservative policy proposals by Kenney, and is likely to be the most liberal about cannabis legalization.
Given the federal government’s timeline for cannabis edibles, the UCP may be the ones determining what edible sales in Alberta look like, as well as other decisions the NDP may initially defer, such as licensed establishments and online sales.
The most important remaining question is how cannabis retail establishments will operate in Alberta. The options on the table are the same that other undecided provinces have: government owned retail, private retail, and a mixed system. The government is waiting for public feedback before deciding, and that decision will have ramifications, both practical and political.
If the NDP decides on government stores, they will hand the UCP a potent political grenade. Accusations will fly from the UCP and groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that the NDP favours unions and has denied hard-working taxpayers the opportunity to participate.
Government stores could create bureaucracy that will be hard to roll back, but Kenney has the political will to do so. He has made several intonations towards extreme measures he would take as party leader, such as launching a constitutional challenge against equalization payments and establishing a summer sitting of the legislature to ‘undo the most destructive NDP policies’. The UCP would likely view dismantling government run stores as a win for taxpayers, preferring private sector jobs over government ones. It’s a scenario that is probably not all that likely given even Kenney’s rhetoric being toned down, but still something to keep in mind.
If the NDP should favour private stores, the chosen distribution model for alcohol in Alberta, they might just be able to hand themselves a political victory. In waiting for public feedback before deciding, they have somewhat insulated themselves from accusations of ideological decisions on the cannabis file. The Alberta Party has already come out in favour of private stores, a model the UCP are also highly likely to support. The NDP could remove one front of political opposition in the coming election by deciding on a privatized cannabis retail system.
The third option of a mixed model is somewhat unlikely given Alberta’s liquor model. Much of the criticism over government-run stores is centered around the up-front costs, which would still be present even if only a small amount of stores are public. Another danger with this model is also that it would be easy for the UCP to take aim at the subset of government stores without upsetting the entire retail regime.
When it comes to edibles, the supply will be federally regulated, meaning the provinces will not be making decisions on things like edible products that might appeal to children. We can, however, expect decisions to be made on things like allowing infused restaurants, and the UCP is likely to take a very conservative approach on that front, perhaps even a complete prohibition.
An area of special consideration would be online sales, given the NDP intends to not have this option available initially. Official statements from New Brunswick, Ontario, and a leaked Quebec report state that their online systems will be available at the outset, so a future government will need to revisit this issue should this decision persist. If the UCP wanted to come firmly down on the side of free enterprise, giving this contract to an Albertan technology company would likely be a popular decision.
It’s understandable to be somewhat apprehensive about the UCP making cannabis decisions, especially given Jason Kenney’s political history. We should also remain hopeful though: the UCP may also embrace a free enterprise approach to the cannabis industry.
– Mike Zmuda
Featured image by Wintertanager and J.T. Storey.
Mike Zmuda enjoys making computers do useful things and plays a mean keytar too.
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