Crown corporations in Manitoba have begun research to prepare for the sale, distribution and regulation of marijuana, now that pot legalization in Canada looks inevitable.
The CEO of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, John Stinson, said his agency will meet with jurisdictions that have already legalized marijuana this winter, such as Colorado, to learn of the "pitfalls" of selling pot legally.
One of the first questions that needs to be addressed, Stinson said, is: do we want to treat marijuana more like alcohol or cigarettes?
'Is there any guarantee that suddenly my mom, going to buy her bottle of Blue Nun wine at the liquor store, will be standing next to someone buying buds of Jamaican Gold? I don't think so.' - John Stinson, CEO, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries
The Manitoba boss of liquor sales and distribution, who could be poised for a widened mandate if weed comes under his domain, sees it more like alcohol.
"I think from a personal perspective and obviously a vested interest, as the CEO of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, we're well positioned to give strong advice on how this could be retailed and does it fit within a model that we could provide the sales for? Possibly it does. So I'm excited about exploring that," Stinson said.
This week, Premier Greg Selinger indicated Liquor and Lotteries, which looks after the sale of alcohol, and the Liquor and Gaming Authority, which regulates liquor, "will be well positioned to regulate the sale and distribution of marijuana in a safe and socially responsible manner" in his speech from the throne.
Newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran on a promise to legalize weed in Canada, but hasn't indicated a timeline yet.
Liquor Marts staff could provide advice: premier
On Thursday, Selinger told The Canadian Press that Manitoba Liquor Mart outlets would be the best place to sell marijuana if and when the federal government legalizes the drug.
Since Liquor Marts have staff that are well-trained on the potential risks of alcohol, he suggested they would be in the same position to provide advice about marijuana.
There would be no requirement for workers to consume the drug, he added.
Manitoba could have licensed private retailers, similar to Colorado, or a mix of public and private sales, similar to alcohol in the province.
Selinger said there would probably be some private involvement. Liquor is sold in private outlets in some rural Manitoba areas where there is no government store, and he expects that model could be used for marijuana as well.
The premier said many of the details have yet to be worked out, because the federal government will determine how the drug will be available.
Managing a 'controlled substance'
Levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, have been manipulated in countries, including Canada, for medical pot, Stinson said. Canadian officials will need to determine what a safe level is, he added.
"Alcohol is 18-plus. I would see marijuana being 18-plus. But what about consumables? What about gummy bears with THC in them? What about potato chips with THC in them? What about brownies with THC in them? What about the levels of THC that exist in marijuana now?"
Stinson said these are all questions that need to be answered.
"We kind of have a framework in place that may be applicable. Is there any guarantee that suddenly my mom, going to buy her bottle of Blue Nun wine at the liquor store, will be standing next to someone buying buds of Jamaican Gold? I don't think so," Stinson said. "I doubt that that's the way it will play out, but I do think we will play a role because we've experienced managing and retailing a controlled substance."
The Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions, which is the coalition of provincial and territorial crown corporations that deal with liquor retail sales and liquor regulation, met last June and discussed pot.
"We kind of put it on the back burner waiting for the election to happen this fall. Of course, that has now occurred," said Stinson, who attended the meetings.
The association put together a small working group ahead of their upcoming meeting in New Brunswick in June.
Liz Stephenson, Chief Administrative Officer with the Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba, will also be involved in that meeting in June.
"It's certainly something that's been on our radar for a while," she said referring to regulating marijuana. "So we've started to do some research looking into other jurisdictions. Most notably, Colorado and Washington state in the United States. But also Uruguay in South America. [Those] are three examples of jurisdictions that do sell pot legally."
The Liquor and Gaming Authority is expected to be the agency in Manitoba to regulate the sale of weed.
"What we're really looking to do now is just gather best practices and to determine what would be a good fit within Manitoba's own regulatory regime," Stephenson said. "So I think it would be premature for me to try to speculate on where we may or may not go and what the lessons learned are at this point because it is still very early days."
Trudeau has said that before pot is sold legally in Canada a national commission will be set up. In a mandate letter to the new federal minister of justice, Trudeau wrote he expects her to deliver on top priorities, including "working with the Ministers of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and Health, [to] create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana."
The Liquor and Lotteries CEO anticipated it will take a couple of years before pot will be on store shelves in Manitoba.
"I think it's probably going to take the federal government a little bit of time to pull together how they want to approach the discussion," Stinson said. "But let's be as prepared as we can be, so that if we are asked to play a distinct role … we know what we're getting into."