Analysis: How Manitoba's hazy plans for weed cloud Winnipeg's legalization preparations

The mayor's intention to abstain from weed on Canada Day is one of the only certain aspects of cannabis legalization in Manitoba, a process that remains hazier than the interior of an air-brushed van parked outside a California high school in the 1970s.

Without knowing what the province has in store for cannabis retailers, the city can't formulate a plan

Cannabis will be legal by Canada Day. Manitoba has yet to announce how it will be regulated, distributed and sold. (Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/Associated Press)

When the sale of cannabis becomes kosher in Canada, Brian Bowman has no plans to sample the newly legal substance.

"That, I can guarantee you, the answer will be 'No!" Winnipeg's mayor said this week when asked whether he intends to light up on Canada Day, when legalization kicks in across the nation.

"I've never consumed cannabis. I don't intend to change that," the mayor said, asking why that should be a surprise, given the way he looks.

Statistically, it's neither surprising nor unsurprising the mayor has never so much as taken a puff on a joint. The odds are roughly even for any given Canadian.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 44 per cent of people in this country have tried marijuana at least once in their lives. As a university-educated male in his 40s, Bowman has had ample opportunity to get high at some point, but has chosen not to do so.

The mayor's intention to abstain on July 1 is one of few certain aspects of cannabis legalization in Manitoba, a process that remains hazier than the interior of an air-brushed van parked outside a California high school in the 1970s.

When Ottawa announced Canada Day 2018 as a legalization target date, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals downloaded most of the pesky details about the rollout to the provinces. Some have since made it clear how cannabis will be regulated, distributed and sold.

Ontario, for example, plans to do it all in house. Canada's largest province plans to create 150 stand-alone cannabis stores, run by a subsidiary of the Ontario Liquor Control Board. This has infuriated entrepreneurs who've already invested in an extensive network of private, grey-market cannabis retailers in Ontario, not to mention anyone who a believes a new industry could be better served by an open market.

Manitoba has yet to reveal its own plans.

The same day Winnipeg's mayor predicted he wouldn't partake on Canada Day, Premier Brian Pallister promised his government would make an "exciting announcement" on Tuesday about its own plans for the sale and distribution of cannabis.

It's widely assumed Manitoba's Liquor and Gaming Authority will regulate cannabis, much the same way it already regulates alcohol and gambling. Regulation, which involves handing out licences and enforcing rules, is well within the capacity of the Crown corporation.

Winnipeg has eight months to develop land-use regulations for cannabis retailers. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)
It would be surprising if the Progressive Conservative government also chose to assume sole control of cannabis distribution and sales. A mix of government distribution and private sales is a more likely outcome, given the fact the Tories are far less beholden than their NDP predecessors to the unionized workers at Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries.

Furthermore, if the private sector is shut out of the process in favour of cannabis sales through Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, it would be fair to question the Pallister government's commitment to entrepreneurialism, competition and free markets. 

Whatever the province announces on Tuesday, Manitoba municipalities may be left scrambling. While most of the concerns voiced by cities about cannabis legalization has centred on policing costs — more on that in a minute — the prospect of private cannabis retailers will leave Winnipeg scrambling to create new land-use regulations.

Revenues that are collected should be flowing to those on the frontline of ensuring we have a safe community, and our case that's the Winnipeg Police Service and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.- Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

Right now, two sets of zoning bylaws determine where various sorts of businesses can set up shop in Winnipeg. These bylaws govern everything from where you can raise chickens (only on land zoned for agriculture), where you can build large factories (only on land zoned for heavy industry) and what hoops you have to jump through before you can expand a licensed patio (it depends).

As it stands, Winnipeg has less than eight months to devise land-use rules for cannabis retailers and effectively determine where these stores can go. The City of Winnipeg hasn't even started planning for the prospect, as the province has not given the city a heads up.

"We'd like it as soon as possible, but we don't have that yet from the province," Bowman said on Wednesday. "We don't have the specifics yet and the sooner we can get them, the more municipalities across Manitoba can do what we need to do on our end."

Premier Brian Pallister has promised an "exciting announcement" on Tuesday about cannabis sales. (The Canadian Press)
The uncertainty surrounding cannabis retail is fascinating, considering the clear direction handed to the city on another regulation issue: vehicles for hire. The city's plan to regulate taxis and services such as Uber is well underway, as regulations must be ready for March 1, when a provincial law that dissolves the Taxicab Board and paves the way for competition is expected to go into effect.

While the city is on the hook for the cost of regulation, Bowman says Winnipeg intends to pass on the charge to taxi companies and new entrants  into the market, such as Uber and Lyft.

Bowman said Wednesday he doesn't hold out much hope for any revenue from the province to replace the $700,000 it used to spend on the Taxi Board. However, the mayor said he does hope the province will hand over some of the money it will rake in from the new recreational cannabis industry.

"Revenues that are collected should be flowing to those on the frontline of ensuring we have a safe community, and our case that's the Winnipeg Police Service and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service," Bowman said.

The notion that cannabis legalization will increase policing costs, espoused by the leaders of several cities and provinces, seems at odds with the longstanding claim policing costs will drop following legalization because law-enforcement dollars will no longer be spent combating cannabis consumption.

The reality is, no one really knows how much revenue will materialize, especially given the patchwork of provincial regulations for legal cannabis. Price differentials in different provinces may create opportunities for the same sort of interprovincial smuggling that created a grey market in Manitoba for Ontario cigarettes in the 1990s.

The quality and diversity of legal cannabis products will also determine how much weed will continue to be sold on the black market.

Again, the only thing that is certain after July 1 will be the absence of any measurable amounts of THC from Brian Bowman's bloodstream.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food 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.