Province turns to private sector to determine how cannabis ought to be distributed and sold

After calling on Ottawa to hold off the legal sale of cannabis, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is now looking for outside help in setting up a marijuana production and distribution system.

After asking for Ottawa to slow down, Manitoba prepares

The Manitoba government is seeking experts to help it prepare for marijuana legalization, which is to take effect next summer. Pictured is a storefront on Robson Street in Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

After calling on Ottawa to hold off the legal sale of cannabis, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is now looking for outside help in setting up a marijuana production and distribution system.

The province initiated a search on Thursday for industry players who can help figure out the market for cannabis in Manitoba, come up with "competitive pricing," and possibly determine who will distribute and sell both marijuana and marijuana derivatives.

Manitoba Finance officials want potential producers and retailers to get back to the province by Sept. 8.

"Manitoba intends to develop a local, broad-based, adaptable and ongoing framework for the implementation of legalized recreational cannabis," Manitoba Finance's procurement branch writes in an expression-of-interest document, noting Ottawa intends to legalize cannabis on July 1, 2018.

"Key measures of success for the framework include restricting access to minors, competitive pricing, quality product, variety and knowledge, limits on density and locations of storefronts, accessibility for all Manitobans."

Cannabis advocate Steven Stairs praised the province for taking this step, especially when it comes to competitive pricing, even though he said it's now too late to ensure there will be enough of a legal cannabis supply next summer to meet the demand in Manitoba.

"They're alluding toward the idea of having a system that's going to make money for the province but also be beneficial for the customer and retailer as well," he said.

This search comes after Premier Brian Pallister has issued repeated requests for Ottawa to hold off on legalization, insisting the province faces challenges in determining rules regarding access, quality oversight and distribution, not to mention age of access and driving under the influence of marijuana.

When the former NDP government was in power, both the provincial Liquor and Gaming Authority and Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries began to explore how to regulate, distribute and sell cannabis.

While former premier Greg Selinger expressed a preference for provincial liquor stores to sell cannabis, the former head of Liquor and Lotteries stated it would take study to determine whether private, public or a mix of retailers would make more sense.

The search document issued today suggests the Pallister government is still considering those options.

"Nothing's off the table at this stage," Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said Thursday during a press conference in her office.

The Manitoba Government and general Employees Union and the NDP opposition prefer public cannabis sales.

After calling on Ottawa to hold off the legal sale of cannabis, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is now looking for outside help in setting up a marijuana production and distribution system. 1:56

NDP justice critic Andrew Swan accused the Tories of dawdling on the cannabis file and questioned the new search for potential private partners.

"We have a government that is terrified of cannabis yet they also hate public institutions and they are on the horns of a dilemma now and I presume this is the way they are trying to get out of it," Swan said at the Manitoba Legislature.

Stefanson said the province is simply looking for options to prepare for legalization.

"The federal legislation was just introduced three months ago. I don't think this is a delay at all," she said.

Swan and Stefanson agreed, however, on the notion future cannabis retail clerks won't have to smoke or otherwise ingest the product. This is contrary to the legal dispensary model in the U.S., where "budtenders" advise consumers on the psychoactive effects of various strains of cannabis and the cannabinoids, terpenes and other substances they contain.

Stairs said that won't work very well.

"You can try to sell cannabis without knowing what the effects are, but you're probably not going to be as good as the guy who sells it and knows what he's talking about. It's kind of like a car salesman who doesn't have a licence," he said.

Earlier this month, Liquor and Gaming Authority revealed it intends to survey public opinion about cannabis regulation.

Both Stefanson and Swan said they do not intend to purchase or consume legal cannabis.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.