Government Owned Cannabis: Better or Bust?

Government owned cannabis is gaining speed. At least, it is in Canada. This week, I saw a tweet from MJ Biz Daily business journalist, Matt Lamers, that said:

The most profitable cannabis businesses in Canada are owned by the government. Provincial monopoly cannabis wholesalers profit/loss (most recent FY): Ontario: $70.2 million; Quebec: $66.5 million; BC: $22.4 million; NB: [$16.5 million]; Alberta: $7 million (forecast).

His sources for those numbers are embedded in this thread at the third tweet. Private Canadian players have apparently lost a combined total of $15.5 billion this year.

The concept of government owned and run cannabis businesses in the U.S. does not get a lot of play legally, politically, or otherwise. Part of that is because cannabis remains a federally illegal schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Essentially, there’s nothing to stop the Department of Justice from arresting and prosecuting anyone that traffics in an illegal drug, including government employees (and don’t forget various other preemption issues).

In Canada, however, government owned cannabis is pretty much ruling the day when it comes to profit. Canada specifically set it up this way under its Cannabis Act (which legalized cannabis in 2018) where provincial governments can decide to take on retail and distribution themselves or cede it to the private sector (or allow for both).

I’m not advocating one way or the other for government cannabis over private, but it does make me wonder if government owned cannabis stores wouldn’t solve maybe a few of the policy and legal issues that we see today in the U.S. cannabis market. At the same time, it’s obvious that sticky issues would arise.

One example to look at though is the “control” liquor model in the U.S., where certain states/local governments own all the liquor stores within their borders. Currently, per NACBA, eighteen states have adopted forms of the “control model”, where the state controls the sale of distilled spirits and, in some cases, wine and beer through government agencies at the wholesale level.

Proponents of the control model like it because of public safety, prevention of job loss (where a lot of states work with unions for employee retention), less selection to drive down consumption, lower prices, and because of increased profits straight back into various community and state needs and initiatives. Opponents prefer privatization because of an increase in access and variety, superior quality product arising out of competition, allegedly better prices because of competition, M&A where private companies buy up liquor licenses upon privatization (and therefore the state gets an instant financial windfall anyway), and morality (i.e., the state should not be in the booze business).

There is at least one government-owned cannabis store in the U.S. (at least there was as of 2018). That shop is Cannabis Corner in the little town of North Bonneville, Washington (and now apparently located in Stevenson, Washington). I wrote about them here in 2015. It has not been gangbusters for this local government owned cannabis store, but that shouldn’t shock anyone given its private sector competition and, frankly, its location in a state that just isn’t that populous outside of Seattle. At the same time, the government owned cannabis enterprise experiment only works if it’s a monopoly, like we have in certain Canadian provinces in Canada.

If states truly care about things like reducing youth access to cannabis, decreasing consumption, and promoting things like social equity while also delivering on promised tax revenue, then maybe state-run cannabis businesses are the way to go. However, it seems the U.S. is too far down the rabbit hole of privatization for that at this point. Who’s to say if that’s a good or bad thing yet. We just cannot know.

In the end, the numbers coming out of Canada probably tell us more about the business judgment of some of the licensees there rather than about the talents of government when it comes to selling cannabis. Still, as countries like Germany survey different models to determine which regulatory standard is the “best”, I’m sure they’ll be considering the “control model” for cannabis.

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