disruption: cannabis and alcohol

Back to The Walrus Talks on disruption, I was listening to Mark Zekulin, the president of a big cannabis company, explaining the challenge of disrupting the cultural and political attachment we have to alcohol.  Good luck to him.

As Zekulin explained, cannabis is a recreational drug that compares favourably with alcohol on a range of criteria that should make it a retail staple, like beer, wine, and spirits.  Moreover, there are significant benefits of cannabis over alcohol: no hangovers, no liver disease, minimal packaging, and some important therapeutic effects, just to name a few.

Also, marijuana achieved an adult market penetration rate of more than 50% while it was still illegal, and it is now, at long last, about to be legalized.  In what other industry would this product need repositioning through disruption?

In 1957, the year of my birth, Bell Canada was bragging about an installed base of telephones in 50% of Canadian homes.  Around that time, national television broadcasts were becoming daily fare for the black-and-white TVs, sprouting bunny-eared antennas, replacing the curvy wood radio receivers that had once occupied the pride of place in Canadian living rooms.  Both the TV and the telephone rocketed to 100% adoption without reliance on disruptive events or tactics.

So why is it such an uphill battle for marijuana?

The question is interesting to me because it relates to my argument (articulated in previous posts on PSFs and transportation) that social change tends to set its own direction and pace: it rarely originates, but often culminates, in a moment of disruption.  Social change can be accelerated or retarded at critical moments, and it takes real strategic acumen to influence its trajectory and velocity.  However, I see disruption as occurring at the end of a long process, rather than at the beginning.

Equally and possibly more important than disruptive opportunities or tactics, from the perspective of business strategy, public policy design, or social enterprise, is discerning the deep, urgent, broad pulse of change beating beneath the static appearance of things.  While successful disruptive strategies make great case studies, most of the time we’re all struggling with what’s already starting to happen, things that would occur with or without our intervention.  Often, but not always, the most we can do is try to affect the speed or trajectory of change in a way that’s beneficial to our interests.

In the case of marijuana, we appear to be poised for rapid change in Canada, with a Prime Minister who represents generational impatience with the status quo.  Indeed, the company over which Zekulin presides has assembled $2 billion, ready to invest in the inevitable ascent of cannabis as a rival to alcohol.

The time clearly hasn’t arrived yet.  All three levels of government are piling on regulation, slowing the availability of cannabis-based product on retail shelves in state-owned or sanctioned beer and liquor stores.  Federal permissions will be smothered under provincial prohibitions relating to the strength, source, advertising, packaging, transportation, age of purchaser, and place of sale.  Municipalities are cracking down on storefronts that have popped up in anticipation of the final legislation, just to reassert their authority over the proliferation (see, for example, Jeff Gray's article in The Globe and Mail).

Yet, as Zekulin, the cannabis executive, complained, the herb is emerging from a long period of prohibition, similar to the ban on alcohol in the United States from 1920 until 1933.  Although Canadian booze leaked pretty freely across the US border, as BC bud does today, various provinces half-heartedly followed the American lead on their own pace thereafter.  Remarkably, Prince Edward Island legally prohibited alcohol until 1948!

The Drunkards Progress (1846)

Nevertheless, prohibition is a pretty severe measure, attempted out of desperation, despite the likelihood of failure.  As mentioned in my last post, drunk driving was a significant factor in the decision to banish alcohol.  Although, at the time, alcoholism was already a considered to be an epidemic in America, and not just by teetotalling church ladies.  Alcohol was viewed as a major cause of absenteeism, illness, family breakdown, poverty, and crime, long before mass produced automobiles clogged American roads with drunks behind the wheels (check out the Drunkards Progress, an advertisement for the temperance movement ca. 1846).

Canada, though more liberal in its approach to alcohol, was culturally marked by the experiment of prohibition in the USA.  Some rum runners, in small towns near great lake crossings, built big homes with their ill-gotten gains, to the clucking opprobrium of town elders.  My paternal grandmother was a fearsome, six-foot-tall, Bible thumping, member of the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire, one of many influential groups pressuring governments in Canada to legislate against easy access and consumption of alcohol.

Until the mid-80’s, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (a stigmatizing anachronism from the prohibition era) still operated a few outlets where customers had to fill in request forms with stubby pencils, slide their shamefully scrawled desires through a hole in a plexiglass window.  Then, a white-shirted and black-tied clerk scrutinized the request, disappearing into a back room before he returned with your bottle, rolled it tightly in paper, and passed it back through the hole to you.

For you tender young readers, I assure you that this is how I bought scotch in Peterborough in 1985.  And, just in case the message was lost on the consumer, every product was listed on wall panels in the 'store', each with a four-number code.  You were instructed to write only the quantity and the code, not the name of the wine or liquor you wanted.  As a retail experience, it was more like buying a prescription drug than any other product, let alone a recreational drug.

Which was the point of Zekulin's comparison between prohibition-era liquor laws and 21st century cannabis controls.  In both cases, most adults were already consumers, and the attempt to control the flow of product did little to sober the populace, while funding organized crime to an extent that was felt long after legalization.

Did alcohol prohibition cease because of commercial, social, or some other form of disruption?  Prohibition may have been caused by social disruption, accelerated by the mass production of automobiles, but it didn’t end that way.  People just got tired of it, and politicians had nothing to gain by perpetuating a failed policy.  Cannabis investors are certainly hoping that disruption will hasten the inevitable liberalization of the drug in Canada and the US, but no one can say what that disruption might look like.

Taking the long view, alcohol has been consumed since antiquity.  Drinking is a deeply and widely rooted social practice, present in religious ritual, in celebration, in mourning, and in artistic creation - at least amongst Gaels and Celts.  Alcohol is now marketed to connoisseurs, each with favourite regions, varietals, and years.  We have dedicated space in our homes for special decanters and glassware, some on permanent and prominent display.  For adolescents, inebriation is a rite of passage.  And, if we’re being totally honest, many among us owe our very conception to alcohol and its disinhibiting properties.

How can cannabis win in a country where it was so recently prohibited and where our southern neighbours still enforce 'zero-tolerance' laws in some states?  About a decade ago, I was introduced to a volunteer track and field coach in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who crossed over to a state prison in Sault, Michigan for weekly sessions with incarcerated college kids who ran laps to maintain sanity during their sentences, imposed for marijuana possession.

A few years later, I was in New York with a friend who was invited by Bloomberg to sit on a special transit task force.  As he went through the receiving line at the press conference announcing the appointments, he was buttonholed by Rupert Murdoch, of all people, who was criticizing him for Canada’s lax border security and the flood of marijuana into the US.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the legalization of marijuana raised as a sticking point in the already doomed NAFTA negotiations.  Given the pervasive effects of American media on some Canadian attitudes and values, public sale and consumption of cannabis may lag years behind its legalization here.

If cannabis advocates cannot imagine or predict the disruption required to accelerate or redirect long-held values, attitudes, and preferences, how is it useful to talk about disruption as an element of business strategy or a catalyst for social change?  Reason isn’t sufficient.  Emotion is required.  Desire must overcome fear for change to be sought and embraced - and that irrational process that seems to take forever sometimes.

In western culture, where oral contraception was believed to liberate women and cause a sexual revolution, we can see now how little has fundamentally changed.  The assumptions and behaviours that spawned all the Cosbys, Ghomeshis, and Weinsteins go back to our mostly brutal and primitive protohominid origins, yet are still with us.  All the enlightened legislation, marking the triumph of disruption, from the protests of suffragettes to the present day, seem like scant progress when predatory sexual dinosaurs rear their rapacious heads and remind us that even the most massive disruption can leave the basest emotions untouched.  Women and girls still suffer from systemic abuse and injustice that a social movement and a legal framework were supposed to eliminate.

I cite this as another example of a rational change, codified in law, that occurs far in advance of the deep change needed to address deep causes, rather than superficial effects.  In the meantime, we muddle along as a society, looking and hoping for catalytic moments when the right and inevitable change will finally occur – when something outside of us will provide sufficient force for us to follow our reason and logic to a conclusion we reached long before we, as a society, could act on it.

I’m beginning to suspect that the idea of disruption arises from a kind of despair.  It’s the deus ex machina of a godless age.  It seems necessary because we don’t collectively behave in accordance with our claims of shared beliefs and values.  We can all concede that we’re smoking dope anyway and that it’s healthier for us and the planet than alcohol.  Yet we cannot bring ourselves to enjoy it as openly as alcohol, because cannabis, in word and thought, still recalls those negative connotations we imposed on it ourselves.  How lame is that?

So, is disruption a phenomenon worth talking about in planning or policy?  I think so.  But I want to be very careful about where and how the concept is applied, and about the world-changing effects that are attributed to it.  Like old school potheads, swearing that weed would cure all social ills, business chatter about disruption might be overstated.

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