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Chambers support regulated free market for rec pot

By Don Fraser, St. Catharines Standard

Ontario should open legalized recreational pot to regulated private-sector distributors and retailers, says Niagara’s largest business chamber. 

The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce has joined with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) in appealing to Premier Kathleen Wynne to reject a LCBO-based model for that distribution, and allow for a conditional free market.

Mishka Balsom, CEO of the Greater Niagara chamber, adds the chamber isn’t saying the federal move is the “right or wrong choice.”

As things are already headed in that direction, what’s important is “where do we go from here?”

She said predicted sales in Ontario by 2024 could be $1 billion to $2 billion … ”the question is where do people purchase this?”

It’s also important to look at where production facilities are located — in Niagara, that includes medical marijuana greenhouse grower Tweed Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and others, said Balsom.

“We’re saying get ahead of it … be part of the consultations that are actively taking place to determine those (location and other) factors.”

Given concerns about the existing LCBO monopoly model and its barriers, it’s also key the province doesn’t “move forward and say ‘It’s only available there, and nowhere else,’” Balsom said.

“A regulated private-sector distribution model can possibly be developed, bring the private sector to the table on this.”

In April, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced marijuana legalization laws would be introduced next spring, with the federal government later announcing a task force to study how regulation could work.

Given this, the OCC’s letter to Premier Wynne is supported by a media release sent out Friday by the Greater Niagara chamber, which states the legalization or decriminalization of recreational marijuana is a foregone conclusion.

The OCC is calling on the province to begin a “robust consultative process” to develop a regulatory framework for the distribution of recreation marijuana.

The Greater Niagara chamber says it spearheaded the OCC initiative with a policy proposal at the provincial chamber’s recent annual general meeting.

On Sunday, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce also gave its approval.

In it, the Ontario chamber says any policy where marijuana becomes available should ensure the underground economy is eliminated, access points are limited, investments are made in addiction prevention and treatments, and communities should have decision-making power.

The government must also ensure marijuana products are subject to best-practice health regulations.

The Niagara chamber’s supporting release adds granting a monopoly on the industry to the LCBO or a similar, government-run organization would not be “in the best interest of Ontario consumers, the public, or business.”

It argues LCBO functions as a barrier to entry for entrepreneurs and businesses in alcoholic beverages. It says the model is “out-dated and hamstrung Niagara’s wineries, breweries and distilleries for nearly a century, slowing job creation and economic growth.”

“A free-market model has been proven, countless times, to deliver the best in product quality and consumer choice,” it says.

“The sudden emergence of a new, legal market will transform what was criminal, black-market activity into jobs, economic growth, tax revenues, and more.”

Dolores Fabiano, executive director of the Niagara Falls, Port-Colborne-Wainfleet and Welland/Pelham chambers, said should the government move forward with legalizing recreational marijuana those chambers would support the initiative.

“It would be important to implement a means of safely retailing marijuana without giving the LCBO or any other monopoly control over this new and lucrative market,” Fabiano said.

“Business should have a role, and could help ensure that the current underground network already well established would be impacted, by not making marijuana more difficult or awkward to purchase.”

Christine Bujold, LCBO’s media relations coordinator, responded to the chambers’ call to open up legalized recreational  marijuana to the free market.

In a Monday e-mail to The Standard, Bujold said the LCBO is paying “close attention” as the federal government works through the process.

“We would take our direction from the provincial government when it comes to any role LCBO may have in retailing cannabis,” Bujold said. “The LCBO has formed an internal working group that is actively reviewing publicly available information which may be useful to us, should LCBO be given this added responsibility.”

In a release last month, the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union said a new province-wide poll shows “Ontarians support the strict regulation and control of marijuana sales to keep it out of the hands of children, and trust the LCBO to do it following legalization.”

The Aug. 30 release said the Nanos Research poll found 41 per cent of Ontarians ranked the LCBO as their first choice for where legal marijuana should be sold.

It said the majority of these respondents cited the procedures that are in place and the LCBO’s experience with controlled substances, as well as the controlled environment, as their rationale.

St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley could not immediately be reached for comment.

donfraser@postmedia.com

Twitter: @don_standard