Nothing hazy about Uber’s intentions in the weed game

The tech giant jumping in could be a repeat of ridesharing and food delivery stories

(Kristen Frier)

(Kristen Frier)

When I was in elementary school, we were taught that weed was a “gateway drug” that would either seduce us with its mellowed-out wiles or be pressed onto us by peers or shady, back-alley dealers. Once hooked, our innocent youth would be destroyed as we “chase the dragon” by graduating into harder narcotics that would transform us into lying criminal deviants. Say what you will about the state of modern society, at least we are smartening up against that slippery-slope fallacy.

It has been a long and arduous road to get where we are today. A road built in spite of decades of virulent fear-mongering, moral panic, and government crackdowns. Such attitudes and policies have mostly fallen by the wayside in Canada, aiding in the approval of legalized recreational cannabis in 2018. Opinions on marijuana consumption have shifted in a similar way to those about alcohol and tobacco, in that it can be bad for one’s health when done in excess, but can be enjoyed responsibly too. 

This growing acceptance has turned the once underground and marginalized industry into a new, regulated market with plenty of untapped potential. Now that the grassroots activists have fought the legal and social battles, demonization is out, and commercialization is in. 

The ride-sharing and food delivery app Uber and the Ontario-based private cannabis retailer Tokyo Smoke have announced a partnership to make deliveries. This means that Tokyo Smoke’s products will be available to order from UberEats. 

Only pickups are an option at this time, as the Ontario Cannabis Store, a Crown corporation, has a monopoly on weed delivery. However, private dispensaries were allowed to do deliveries and curbside pickups early into the COVID-19 lockdown and the provincial government is musing with the idea of reinstating the practice permanently. 

With that being said, is it wise to trust Uber, of all companies, to act as cannabis couriers given what we know? Uber’s reputation as an employer has become increasingly marred by its fight to classify drivers as “independent contractors” which excludes them from the rights and protections afforded to regular workers. 

This year, three British Columbian drivers claimed that they were fired by the company for exercising their right to refuse unsafe work on this exact basis. Even in Ontario, where the weed ordering service is set to take place, the Superior Court of Justice has greenlit a class-action lawsuit that aims to get the company to recognize drivers as employees. 

What Uber has done to taxi drivers and pizza delivery workers, it now seeks to do with weed: undercut the market with cheap, “disposable” labour and then hike up prices once market dominance has been assured. 

What else would we expect from the architects of the modern gig economy?

What about the dispensaries themselves? It’s possible that, like restaurant owners who came to realize that working with big food delivery apps means losing up to 30 per cent of the delivery revenue to licensing fees, retailers selling weed through Uber could face a loss of some of their profits. 

If a well-established restaurant could fall into debt because delivery apps eat a portion of every delivery charge, imagine the financial woes that would befall independently-owned cannabis dispensaries. 

Knowing that your business — which is keeping its head just barely above water — is losing a good chunk of money on delivered products is certain to create more anxiety than prosperity. 

Letting Uber insert itself as the middleman to weed shops is convenient to the consumer, but in the longer term, it may come at the cost of being a detriment to the industry.