The legalization of cannabis: Prudence with a capital “P”

Opinion letter by Yves-Thomas Dorval, President & CEO, Quebec Employers Council.

The Laval News, p. 5 – 14 juin 2017

The North Shore News, p. 5 – 16 juin 2017

The issue surrounding the legalization and selling of cannabis is complex and multi-faceted. This is why the expediency with which the federal government is advancing the issue and establishing short time frames runs the risk of failing to account for all of the critical aspects of the dossier. To comply with the required deadlines, the provinces will have to conduct prompt consultations with the population and experts in the health field and, we suggest, with experts in sales and marketing. Above all, because of its major impact on public health, it is of utmost importance the legalizing of marijuana doesn’t turn into a trivial matter.

Governments need to be ever mindful of the issues with which they will be confronted if they become operators in the marijuana market, in a mid- to long-term perspective. The aim here is not to promote privatization, because it is not the intention of the Quebec Employers Council to defend a private interest in this debate. No, this a matter of being prudent about a public interest issue, because the risks run from increased consumption in the event of a greater trivialization, to the difficulty in dealing with illegal activities in relation to the demand, and the long-term possibility the government could be subject to legal challenges in the courts. We should draw on the experience of certain countries that withdrew from the government monopolies in the tobacco sector to avoid being the target of eventual legal action.

Prudence and the market’s four Ps

Price: It’s a major issue that is going to be a determining factor in the market’s development. We realize one of the main objectives of legalizing the product is to thwart illegal activities and eventually provide more funding to prevention campaigns. But, if the price of the product is too high, consumers will continue to turn to illegal suppliers. On the other hand, if the price is too low, you run the risk of having a “commonplace” effect and an ensuing rise in consumption.

Product: By producing or regulating the product, the government would also be responsible for its composition. For obvious public health reasons, the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) contained in cannabis, the main substance which has an effect on a person, must be controlled. But if you consider this issue from the consumer demand aspect, consumers will continue to turn to the illicit market to get the desired effect, if the regulated product doesn’t meet their need.

And, while the federal government seems to want to ban the food processing of marijuana, the consumption of this involves other potentially harmful health risks when it’s inhaled following combustion.

Place (selling and consumption): by allocating the sale of cannabis to a government-operated authority the risks of trivialization are high; moreover the government could be taking on an enormous responsibility in the event of a class-action suit. And, the places of consumption would have to be taken into account, because in the area of tobacco, for instance, there are more and more regulations banning consumption of these products in various public places.

Promotion: It would be incomprehensible if the legislation pertaining to the marijuana market was any less restrictive than tobacco regulations, considering the specific health risks. Regulation has to be consistent with that of tobacco and, if for any reason, it was less restrictive, the tobacco regulations would also have to be reviewed.

Meanwhile, the federal law on tobacco calls for up to two years imprisonment for anyone promoting tobacco, pertaining to the “representation of a product or service by any means, whether directly or indirectly – including any communication of information about its price and distribution – that is likely to influence and shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about the product or service” (sic.). Imagine what might happen if an employee of a government-operated authority, a civil-servant or a cabinet minister had to talk about this in the public sphere! That’s another reason which should discourage governments from being directly involved in this market, or the need to review this provision.

And, in terms of prevention relating to the workplace, notably in conjunction with health and safety issues for workers or the public, we also need to plan for circumstances which might arise in the employment context, and the prevention devices which could be made available to employers.

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