Supreme Court upholds restrictions on moving booze between provinces

New Brunswick man loses his 5-year long "free-the-beer" fight

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled against a New Brunswick man who challenged charges laid against him of transporting alcohol from Quebec to New Brunswick — it’s a decision that reinforces the legal strength of trade barriers between provinces when it comes to the free flow of products like alcohol, and deals a disheartening blow to free trade advocates across the country.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision states that provincial governments have the power to enact laws that restrict commerce if they deem that it will benefit their respective provinces.


"New Brunswick's ability to exercise oversight over liquor supplies in the province would be undermined if non-corporation liquor could flow freely across borders and out of the garages of bootleggers and home brewers," the Supreme Court said.

The supply and distribution of alcohol in New Brunswick is controlled by the New Brunswick Liquor Corporation — allowing the free trade of alcohol between provinces will presumably disrupt the crown corporation’s monopoly.

In late 2012, Gerard Comeau drove to Quebec from his home in Tracadie, New Brunswick to purchase 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor from multiple stores. Comeau was arrested by the RCMP for violating a provincial law that places a cap on the amount of alcohol that can be brought into New Brunswick. He subsequently challenged the charges, and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Comeau’s lawyers argued that the charges against their client violated section 21 of the Constitution Act of 1867, which states that Canadian goods should be able to travel freely across the country. In the early 20th century several provinces enacted prohibition laws — it was then that the movement of alcohol between provinces became severely restrictive.

But the end of prohibition did not bring free trade back to the alcohol industry. Provinces like Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario enacted government-controlled models of supply and distribution of booze — systems that allowed them to reap hefty tax income on the sale of alcohol.

“There’s no reason why a province needs to have a monopoly to make a tax income on a product. We don’t have government-owned tax gas pumps and yet provinces make a lot of money off gas taxes. We don’t think it should be any different for alcohol,” Howard Anglin the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF), a free trade advocacy group told CTV News Channel.

This decision also calls into question how cannabis or cannabis products — once fully legalized this year — will be able to move between provinces. Ontario and Quebec have already instituted a government-run model of supply — similar to alcohol. As a result, residents of those provinces will be prohibited from ordering cannabis from licensed producers outside their home province, or transporting more than 30 grams of cannabis between provinces.

“Very sad day”, tweeted Jodie Emery a cannabis rights activist who has fervently campaigned against province-run cannabis stores.

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