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Matt Maurer speaks to The GrowthOp on the government's handling of alcohol and cannabis during COVID-19

Matt Maurer, of Torkin Manes' Cannabis Law Group, speaks to The GrowthOp on the government's handling of alcohol and cannabis during COVID-19 revealing a double standard.

There’s no need to try to persuade David Clement about there being two sets of rules for alcohol and cannabis. He’s already convinced. The North American affairs manager for the Consumer Choice Center doesn’t mince words. “There is a huge double standard between the two,” he tells The GrowthOp. 

Clement points to the measures that were taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on both industries (and the respective timing of government assistance) as an example of the glaring difference between how both are perceived and protected.

In Ontario, the government moved quickly to help out licensed bars, restaurants and alcohol retailers by allowing licensed establishments to sell alcohol along with food takeout. It also increased the hours of operation for buying alcohol at licensed grocery stores. All this took place weeks before private cannabis stores were allowed to offer delivery and curbside pick-up options; and even this was only after the shops were de-listed as an essential service.

Don’t get Clement wrong, though; he fully supports changes in both sectors. The hospitality industry, after all, has been hit as hard as any by COVID-19. “I think both of those are great and very consumer-focused, consumer-friendly policies,” he says of restaurant delivery and longer grocery store hours for alcohol. “We just want that same mentality and that same pro-consumer approach to be applied to cannabis policies and the rules and regulations around cannabis.”

Despite tremendous progress — with cannabis going from an illegal product to an essential business — Clement believes there is an underlying hurdle that government simply won’t let the industry clear. “Stigma is playing a part,” in what drives policy, he says. “Some of the disparity between alcohol and cannabis comes from the fact that a prohibition perspective still very much exists with government regulators at all levels.”

One need look no further than the federal government’s public facing to understand Clement’s point. The Liberal government seems mostly uncomfortable with its own legalization policies, or at least with the idea that people will actually use legalized marijuana. Even before the pandemic, Canada’s health minister Patty Hajdu was saying that the best way for people to protect their health is not to consume cannabis.

As VICE columnist Manisha Krishnan points out, “Since the beginning, the messaging we’ve heard has focused on thin moral arguments like keeping weed out of the hands of children and getting gangsters out of stairwells.”

Matt Mauer, a partner at Torkin Manes LLP and co-chair of its Cannabis Law Group, acknowledges there is some double standard between the handling of alcohol and cannabis, but doesn’t think stigma comes into play. “I think it’s easier to shut the stores when you have a somewhat viable backup,” meaning the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) and its delivery options, Mauer said just days before Ontario allowed private cannabis shops to deliver their products and prepare them for curbside pick-up.

He emphasizes that private cannabis retail is certainly capable of doing — and should be allowed to do — direct delivery. “I don’t see why, with the right oversight and the right prescriptions in place, that they couldn’t do it in a responsible manner in the same way that the OCS is doing it,” he told The GrowthOp.

Part of Ontario’s justification for its early stance against allowing private cannabis retailers to deliver or have pick-up was that the OCS was a safer option. Mauer doesn’t buy it, however. With to-the-door delivery currently available only to customers in certain postal code areas, he says remaining customers need to pick up at a Canada Post outlet.

“How is that different from click and collect?” Also, the OCS delivery is handled by a private courier system. “If the OCS can use a private courier to deliver, why can’t a private retailer use it to deliver?”

Clement agrees. “If the worry is about additional exposure, what difference is there in lining up at a cannabis retail outlet and lining up at the post office to get your cannabis? Given that context, it seems ridiculous that these stores were even closed at all,” he says.

It all comes back to the varying comfort levels governments on every level exhibit with cannabis. Legalization is great and wonderful when it’s spoken of in context of safety or as part of an effort to quash the illicit market. But it seems, at least, that the organizations regulating legalization would rather not talk about its actual use. It’s a weird duality that continues to wield an influence over the public’s ability to access cannabis — as has been seen over the last couple weeks.

“I think (cannabis) is an essential business at the highest level, meaning the product is an essential business. The federal government has said that,” Mauer says. “If the product itself is essential, you would like to think that the supply chain for it is also essential.”

This article was originally published in The GrowthOp.

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