The old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows has never been truer than in Ontario right now, where cannabis advocates are teaming up with the last people you'd expect to fight for marijuana reform. Members of the Progressive Conservative Party are working with activists to oppose the provincial government's regulations for recreational marijuana retailers.
Earlier this month, Ontario's Liberal government announced plans to close every cannabis dispensary in the province so that government-run stores won't face any competition from the "gray market" when Canada repeals marijuana prohibition next summer. Right now, the only legal way to purchase marijuana is through a mail-order system overseen by Health Canada, so every marijuana storefront in the country is illegal. And even though many have been operating in Ontario for decades, the provincial government wants them all shuttered within the next 12 months to make way for their own pot shops.
That hardline stance against dispensaries has incensed cannabis activists as well as the Liberals' age-old enemy, the PC Party. Former PC leader Tim Hudak, current leader Patrick Brown and sitting MPP Randy Hillier are just a few of the prominent conservatives who have lent their support or at least heard out the activists' cause. And if you find that unlikely alliance shocking, imagine how the activists feel.
"I used to be a vegan anarchist, so if I told my teenage self that I'd be working with Conservatives as allies on legalizing cannabis, I would never believe it," Lisa Campbell, spokesperson for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association (CFBA), recently told Civilized. "But it's happening. Even on Toronto City Council, the councillor that we have helping us is pretty libertarian. So I think it's really the libertarian conservatives that really connect with us on this issue."
That's because libertarian-minded conservatives despise the idea of running the province's cannabis industry as a government monopoly.
"Conservatives viciously hate the LCBO. They're pro-privatization," Campbell explained. "They are our biggest allies in this fight. Unfortunately, because the NDP is the labor party, they're more sided towards OPSEU and other government unions [that will be involved in running the monopoly]. But we're hoping the NDP will wake up and realize this is a social justice issue. And that big business has had its say with legalization. Now it's time to embrace the existing craft industry and integrate it instead of further criminalizing it."
And she's hoping that Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals will also see the light — for their own sake if not for the constituents who will be impacted by the crackdown on dispensaries. Campbell thinks cannabis could become a stumbling block that brings down the government in the next election if they don't get onside with the storefronts.
"There's an election coming in June, so for Kathleen Wynne to win that election, she has to actually listen to her constituents. Every single major newspaper across Canada last weekend [ca. Sept 8] published scathing editorials of the LCBO plan for cannabis. So I think mainstream public opinion is on our side....If we were to license cannabis in the same way that we regulate alcohol, there's so much potential for what kinds of businesses can emerge from that, not just a government monopoly. And obviously the government wants to create jobs, so having diverse licensing provincially to embrace the innovation of the gray market could help them win the next election."
And if the PC Party can become unlikely allies of cannabis advocates, there's definitely a chance that Premier Wynne could change her mind about dispensaries. But that about-face might actually hurt Campbell's cause since Wynne's record-breaking unpopularity in the province has actually boosted public opinion toward dispensaries.
"I think that because Kathleen Wynne is so unpopular on other levels, even people who you would not expect to be our allies have gone pro-dispensary," Campbell added. "For example, I've seen alt-right websites producing anti-Kathleen Wynne memes because she wants to create an LCBO-model for cannabis."
So Wynne might actually be the advocates' biggest and unlikeliest ally of all.