Yukonomist: A million bucks of weed

Pot sales lag behind beer and wine, but lead vodka and whiskey

You may have seen media reports that more than $1 million in cannabis was sold through the Yukon government’s new weed shop, from when it opened on October 17 to the end of 2018.

This economic statistic seems to have attracted more attention than the Yukon Statistics Bureau’s newly published analysis of our 2017 gross domestic product. Several readers have asked me to compare the cannabis figures to the Yukon’s notoriously high alcohol consumption.

As a public service, here’s the math.

If you annualize the cannabis sales for the 76 days the store was open in 2018, you get to $5.2 million in cannabis sales per year.

In comparison, the Yukon Liquor Corporation annual report for 2017-18 says that it sold $44.3 million of booze that fiscal year (including the $4.4 million in territorial liquor tax built into the prices in the store).

Yukoners would have to ramp up legal pot consumption by a factor of almost ten to match alcohol sales. If you look at product categories, however, cannabinophiles can take solace in the fact that weed is already the Yukon government’s third most lucrative intoxicant.

Cannabis sales lag beer ($18.1 million) and wine ($8.4 million), but lead vodka ($3.3 million) and whiskey ($2.7 million).

If the experience of Alaska is any guide, cannabis sales may continue to grow as people get used to legalization. Last year, using national data from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, I estimated the Yukon cannabis market would be $5-10 million per year.

So cannabis may displace wine in second place someday.

Or it may not. The black market continues to exist. A Yukonomist source who visited the government cannabis shop just after it opened claims to have observed a pillar of our community attempting to buy some official product. However, upon hearing the price, he muttered, “I can get it cheaper from my regular guy,” and left the store.

Public health officials in some jurisdictions are concerned that legalization and upbeat advertising by the rapidly emerging cannabis industry will encourage people to consider it “safe.” Since it was difficult to study cannabis while it was illegal, it will take some time for us to understand its health risks.

This is in contrast to alcohol, where the evidence is pretty clear. Back in 2015, the Yukon’s Medical Officer of Health put out a soberly worded but alarming report entitled Yukon Health Status Report: Focus on Substance Abuse.

You should probably show the flowchart entitled “A Schematic of the Widespread Impacts of Alcohol on Risky Behaviour” to any teenagers you care for.

In addition to the flowchart’s depiction of alcohol’s relationship to accidents, violence, abuse, crime, alcohol poisoning, unprotected sex and various other perils, the report contains a depressingly long list of alcohol related statistics. Yukon adults aged 25 and over made more than 1000 visits to the Emergency Department per year for “problems directly associated with drug and/or alcohol use.”

Around 400 visits were related to injuries, with about half being unintentional and the rest either assault or self-harm. Almost a third of automobile collisions resulting in serious injury in the Yukon between 2001 and 2010 involved alcohol. Yukoners averaged more than one impaired driving incident per day during the decade ending in 2014. And so on.

The results were particularly worrying for our youth. A whopping 14 per cent of Yukon Grade 9-10 students reported binge drinking at least once a month in 2014. Of course, they were only emulating their adult role models. Over 30 per cent of Yukoners aged 20 or over were categorized as “heavy drinkers” according to the Canadian Community Health Survey. That’s 1.5 times the national average.

As for the effect on your health, be cautious about internet science suggesting alcohol is good for you. The report sums up the medical evidence this way: “There is clear evidence of the increased burden of chronic disease associated with heavy, chronic consumption, and less conclusive direction as to whether low to moderate consumption (among otherwise healthy adults) is a protective or risk factor for disease overall.”

In a year or two as the legalized market stabilizes, we’ll have better statistics to gauge Yukon weed consumption versus the national averages. In the meantime, it remains clear that alcohol abuse is a scourge here. We should continue to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to reduce excessive alcohol consumption, especially among our young people. Despite that worrying 2015 report from the Medical Officer of Health, the Yukon government’s alcohol revenues have gone up every year since.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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