The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada wants to legalize marijuana, but it hasn’t even fully legalized alcohol yet

National Marijuana Day in Ottawa, Canada. (Chris Roussakis/AFP via Getty Images)

Nick Zarzycki is a Toronto-based comedy writer.

As it makes plans to become the first industrialized country to fully legalize pot, Canada is essentially steering blind. But if this country’s long and tortured history with alcohol is any indication, Canadians should expect the worst.

To understand Canada’s very special relationship with alcohol, you have to go all the way back to the spring of 1822, when Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, was just seven years old and a crazed babysitter decided to drag him and his younger brother James to a local tavern.

At one point in the evening, the caregiver began forcing gin down the boys’ throats for a laugh. John didn’t like this, so he grabbed his brother’s arm and made a run for it. Five-year-old James then tripped and fell, and John watched in horror as the enraged babysitter beat his little brother to death with a cane. Sixty-one years later, after a lifetime of acute alcoholism, Macdonald helped pass the “Intoxicating Liquors Bill,” which gave the government control over liquor distribution. Thus was born Canadian liquor law — at the hands of a traumatized, PTSD-suffering alcoholic whose first memory of drinking was of his brother being beaten to death with a cane.

Ever since then, Canada’s liquor laws have treated Canadians with intense suspicion, ever fearful that they too could turn into drunken murderers of children.

Until 1975, customers at Ontario’s liquor stores had to sign their name every time they made a purchase. British Columbians weren’t allowed to drink booze on Sundays until 1986. To this day, Canada essentially treats alcohol like nuclear fuel, which under current liquor laws is actually easier to legally transport around the country than alcohol. (Seriously, once you obtain the appropriate packaging, you can transport or mail nuclear material anywhere you want in Canada. No such packaging or license currently exists for alcohol.)

Today, Canada appears content to take the same approach to cannabis.

Despite party leader Justin Trudeau’s pot-friendly image, the Liberals’ proposed Cannabis Act is incredibly restrictive. It would make it a crime to do things such as smoke weed not grown by a government-approved producer and throw someone in jail for offering a toke to someone under the age of 18. Most of these regulations are, of course, rooted in the enduring myth that pot is a dangerous substance — more dangerous, even, than alcohol.

The only good argument for this kind of tightly-controlled distribution regime is the same one that defenders of Canada’s liquor monopolies usually make: that it might keep the private sector in check. “A frequently cited concern with legalization is that it will allow the rise of Big Cannabis, similar to Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol,” wrote a group of addiction specialists in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2015. “It is important that the regulations actively work against the establishment of Big Cannabis.”

But Canada’s experience with public liquor monopolies indicates that similar laws for cannabis will actually end up strengthening big corporations. Behind its public facade, large swathes of Canada’s government liquor monopoly are currently controlled by some of the largest alcohol producers in the world. Ontario’s largest beer retailer, the Beer Store, is owned by a consortium of large international breweries (AB InBev, Molson Coors, and Sapporo). A 2015 survey revealed that only 10 percent of Ontarians are aware of this. The Wine Rack, Canada’s largest wine store, is owned by New York-based Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine producer.

Far from restraining Big Alcohol, Canada’s liquor laws actively deter these companies’ smaller Canadian competitors by making it illegal to sell to Canadians in any other way. Small breweries and wineries are, in turn, terrified of speaking out against the system, for fear of losing their shelf space at public and private retailers. At the core of the problem is a bizarre 90-year old federal law called the “Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act” (IILA), which makes it illegal for even a single bottle of alcohol to enter a Canadian province without first being purchased by (or on behalf of) the provincial government. Most Canadians aren’t aware of the IILA, and millions of them have probably unknowingly broken the law since it was passed in 1928. But maybe the most bizarre thing about the IILA is that it could soon collapse, bringing the entire legal basis of Canada’s liquor distribution system down with it.

Last year, a New Brunswick judge dismissed the charge against Gerard Comeau after ruling that the New Brunswick law used to charge him with smuggling a dozen cases of beer across the Quebec border was unconstitutional. Ian Blue, a lawyer on Comeau’s defense team, has argued that the ruling could spell the end of the IILA, and with it the current legal basis of Canada’s liquor monopolies. “Provincial liquor monopolies across Canada are now vulnerable to judicial deconstruction,” wrote Blue in the National Post of the decision. Canada’s Supreme Court agreed this month to hear an appeal of the case, and a similar ruling there could soon deal a fatal blow to the IILA.

So as it works to legalize marijuana over the coming months, perhaps Canada can take this opportunity to also finish legalizing alcohol too.