British Columbia

How will legal pot be sold in B.C.? Province still hazy on answers

We now have a date for legal marijuana in Canada, but Ottawa will let the provinces decide how it's sold and to whom, and B.C. doesn't have answers for that yet.

Province has working group, but it's unclear how or where the drug will be sold or who will be able to buy

Provinces will decide what age someone is allowed to buy and use marijuana under legalization, according to leaked information from Ottawa. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

The federal Liberals have finally said when marijuana will be legal in Canada — July 1, 2018 — but just how the drug will be sold above-board in B.C. remains unclear.

Under legislation expected next month, the provinces will decide the price of pot, as well as how marijuana products are distributed and sold.

In B.C., a cross-ministry working group is, well, working on it — but saying little.

"Until the full details of the federal changes are finalized and released, we will not be in a position to speak in any further detail," said Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Morris in a statement.

The NDP says the government's "hands-off" approach on the file has left B.C. behind when it should be consulting with municipalities and the public on the "incredibly complex" regulations to come.

"We need to get going on that work now," said Carole James, MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill and NDP finance critic.

Here's where the questions stand so far.

Two people hold a modified design of the Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf in the middle during the "420 Toronto" rally in Toronto, Wednesday April 20, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Who will be allowed to buy?

When marijuana becomes legal, the pretense of a prescription will be gone, but age restrictions will remain.

That's one of B.C.'s top three concerns under legalization, with the government stating earlier this month: "Young people should not have access to cannabis before they are of age."

Ottawa plans to set a minimum age of 18, but the provinces can go higher than that.

"I think what we'll end up seeing is the provinces setting the age limit consistent [with] alcohol," said M-J Milloy, a marijuana researcher at the University of B.C. Department of Medicine and B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

The federal task force on legalization also suggested provinces might harmonize the rules with alcohol, which in B.C. is legal at 19.

There has been a "quite heated debate in scientific circles" about the effects of cannabis use on the developing brain, up to age 25, said Milloy.

But having tougher rules for recreational cannabis than alcohol could have the unintended effect of promoting alcohol use, he said.

A smoker takes a hit off his pipe at the 4/20 event at Sunset Beach in Vancouver in 2016. (Chris Corday/CBC)

How much will it cost?

Deciding the price of legal marijuana will be a "crucial" decision for regulators, as they try to make the new system both attractive and responsible, said Milloy.

"It's going to be very tricky," he said.

"Canada already has a very high-functioning cannabis market ... and now the government is trying to muscle in on that market."

From a public health perspective, a high price makes sense as a discouragement — which has been done to successfully limit tobacco use in young people, he said.

But the government has to lure customers away from the illegal drug trade, and price will be part of that.

"For many people, cost is king. If the government cannabis is twice the price of illegal cannabis, I don't think many people will be moving into the legal cannabis world."

The federal government will be responsible for licensing producers and will need to find more to bridge the 'huge gap' between legal supply and expected demand, said UBC's M-J Milloy. (Ron Ward/Canadian Press)

Where will it be sold?

In B.C., liquor stores have pitched the idea that they should be the ones to distribute marijuana products, but there's little support for that idea.

The federal task force recommended not selling alcohol and cannabis in the same place, and Milloy said there's a public health argument against it.

"Cannabis really becomes a public health problem when it is paired with alcohol, in terms of use," he said.

The task force recommended direct mail order, and dedicated storefronts that aren't close to schools or parks, though it's not clear how existing medical dispensaries in Vancouver and elsewhere would work within that system.

An overhead view of the 4/20 rally in Vancouver in 2016, where an estimated 25,000 pot enthusiasts converged on Sunset Beach. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Who will grow it?

Ottawa will license the producers and will need to find more suppliers to bridge the "huge gap" between demand and what legal producers are growing now, said Milloy. 

"There has to be some way of bringing into the legal marketplace the illegal producers."

This could be very significant in British Columbia, where marijuana is a major, if undocumented, cash crop, key to the economic reality of many small towns, he said.

"Figuring out some sort of way to convert these 'outlaws' into people who pay taxes and employ employees … in a legal economy, will be one of the big benefits of legal cannabis."

"There's going to have to be some sort of outreach to those folks."

Colorado's move to legalize marijuana for recreational use has brought new jobs to the state, including manual labour like trimming. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press)

With files from Richard Zussman


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