B.C.’s first government cannabis store opens in Kamloops, October 2018. The city is getting two more government stores this year. (Black Press files)

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Government monopoly sounds great, if you work there

Licensed private marijuana stores are finally starting to flower in B.C., with StarBud launching in the Okanagan and Clarity Cannabis aiming for a September opening in Prince Rupert, among others.

Meanwhile, the (cough) informal marijuana market seems to be rolling along as B.C. wanders toward the first anniversary of cannabis legalization. Here in Victoria, retail stores started opening up years ago, usually with some token nod to “medical” customers, and our famously inept city council started issuing business licences well in advance of federal legalization.

Why? Well, Vancouver was doing it, and in both of these Left Coast social laboratories, federal laws may be viewed more as suggestions. (For example, just declare yourself a “sanctuary city” and instruct your police not to inquire into anyone’s citizenship status. Poof, no more Canadian immigration law.)

In the weed business, illegal operators seem to be doing better than federal and provincial wholesale monopolies. In some cities, consumers have no ready way to tell if a pot store is provincially approved, or has even bothered with a business licence.

Government competition has caused the black market to sharpen its pencils. Statistics Canada estimates that as legal weed prices rise above $10 a gram, illegal producers are cutting consumer costs down towards $5.

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The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch is doing a great job on its slick-looking retail chain – in Kamloops, anyway. The home of the first B.C. Cannabis Store is about to get two more, and people are lining up to apply for the intensive training offered for unionized “budtenders.”

Anticipating the price problem, the LDB was restrained to a mere 15 per cent wholesale markup. Its monopoly on federally-licensed suppliers is an extension of its liquor wholesale monopoly, which marks up a bottle of hard liquor by 124 per cent, whether it’s sold in a public or private retail store. Then you pay taxes on top of that.

Local politicians are preparing for the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in September, where the discussion about their cut of B.C. revenues will no doubt continue. (Another topic is the local share of fine revenue from the “not photo radar” cameras that will soon be issuing speeding tickets by mail.)

The LDB also has the online cannabis sales monopoly, where you can use your credit card to order products with names like Kinky Kush that come in amazingly over-packaged Canada Post secure deliveries. A few, er, kinks still need to be straightened out in this government workers’ paradise, such as popular strains running out and others arriving mouldy from sitting too long in a warehouse.

Growers and grey-market dispensary operators warned early on that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vision of legalization would lead to shortages. One buzz-killing result of this is the accusation that a publicly traded grower in Ontario concealed the true size of its crop from Health Canada inspectors. Perhaps their chosen brand, CannTrust, wasn’t the best one.

I hope you don’t spend too much time on Twitter, but if you do, check the hashtag #4plantscup. There you will find experts competing to maximize the yield from the four cannabis plants individuals are now allowed to grow at home for personal use.

This is perhaps the biggest long-term threat to the provincial-federal monopoly. As long as home grows are kept discreetly out of sight and don’t obviously exceed size and commercial restrictions, police will devote their time to more pressing concerns.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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