Sask. liquor vendors want in on pot sales

As the debate rages in Saskatchewan about where people should be able to buy pot, liquor vendors are making their pitch.

Hotel and hospitality association says the province's 700 liquor stores are an easy solution to sell pot

Jim Bence is the president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association. (CBC)

Would you like a bag of Kush with your beer? How about some hash oil with your vodka? As the debate rages in Saskatchewan about where people should be able to buy pot, liquor vendors are now making their pitch. 

"We already deal in a controlled substance, which is liquor," said Jim Bence, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association.

We already deal in a controlled substance, which is liquor.- Jim Bence, Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association

"It's already heavily regulated; it's taxed. We already do a really good job in that competitive space."

Saskatchewan is the only province still to announce details about how it plans to retail and regulate pot once the drug becomes legal for recreational use on July 1. 

The provincial government has a working group, but new rules likely won't be announced until after a new premier is chosen at a leadership convention at the end of January. 

'It's not wine and cheese'

Bence says the province has made strides to "level the playing field" when it comes to liquor vendors — all liquor outlets are now licensed the same. 

That's why he says there's no need to re-invent the wheel. 

"The idea that cannabis shouldn't be sold alongside liquor makes as much commonsense as saying you can't sell beer alongside vodka. That argument doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.

But not everyone agrees. 

Guidelines provided by the federal government recommended against selling pot alongside booze. Alberta, for example, is explicit in not allowing pot to be sold alongside booze. 

Kelly Csada, the owner of KELZ Medical Services Corp., favours a model of government regulation and even some government intervention in the distribution of marijuana. (CBC)

Many Saskatchewan medical marijuana dispensary owners agree the two should be kept separate. 

"It's not wine and cheese. It's not like cannabis and booze go together hand and hand," said Kelly Csada, the owner of KELZ Medical Services Corp.

Csada favours a model of government regulation and even some government intervention in the distribution. But she says the model for how to sell cannabis is already in place — there are already several dispensaries operating across the province. 

She said the easiest way forward is license and regulate those dispensaries. 

"These are people who are passionate about cannabis. Help them get into the business. It's already set up. Why spend millions of dollars to set it up in some other way?" 

In a government survey released last month, 45 per cent of respondents expressed a desire for a government-run retailer to sell marijuana. (CBC News)

Liquor outlets already in rural Sask.

But Bence says access is part of the reason liquor vendors are well positioned. 

There are already more than 700 liquor outlets across the province and many in rural regions. Without the reach that the already established liquor outlets have, he says, the black market will still flourish in some areas. 

He also says the system is already in place to work with a government-run wholesaler in the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority. Pot would just have to be added to the order list when stores are ordering in alcohol from SLGA. 

"It really is a very uncomplicated solution to what other provinces, I think, are making very complicated," he said. 

In a provincial government survey released last month, 45 per cent of respondents expressed a desire for a government-run retailer —  like the SLGA — to sell marijuana. 

Thirty-seven per cent of respondents believed small businesses should sell cannabis, and more than 62 per cent of respondents said they want to see a mix of retail stores and online sales.