Canada's slacker pot legalization could create interprovincial haze

The prospects of a uniform Canadian cannabis regime are fading as the Liberal government promises legislation that will create a north-of-the-border patchwork of marijuana rules.

Ottawa hands the provinces most of the power to determine how weed will be sold

The Canadian government has promised to table legislation legalizing cannabis by the summer of 2017. (CBC)

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On the south side of the 49th parallel, where football has four downs and Kinder Surprises are illegal, the rules governing weed are all over the place.

In U.S. states such as Colorado and Washington, all cannabis products are completely legal. In Delaware and Illinois, medical cannabis is kosher, but recreational weed has merely been decriminalized.

In North Dakota and Arizona, medical marijuana is legal, but recreational cannabis remains against the law. In Utah and Oklahoma, legalization applies only to medical cannabis products containing cannabidiol, a chemical that doesn't get humans high.

Then there are states like Idaho and Nebraska, where cannabis is entirely illegal.

The patchwork of regulations means both recreational and medical marijuana users in the U.S. ought to be mindful when they cross state lines. It also creates all manner of economic and regulatory headaches for the American municipalities who wind up enforcing the rules, assuming they choose to do so, not to mention municipal, county or state authorities tasked with trying to regulate the industry.

When the Trudeau government announced plans to legalize marijuana, it appeared possible Canada could escape a similar fate. One set of the cannabis rules north of the border could prevent the creation of a patchwork of rules.

But the prospects of a uniform Canadian cannabis regime are fading quickly. The Liberal government is now promising cannabis legislation that creates a north-of-the-border patchwork of marijuana rules. 

Ottawa plans to regulate marijuana producers and create safety standards, both to ensure contaminants are not present in commercial cannabis products and to measure the levels of active ingredients such THC, the cannabinoid that makes people high, and cannabidiol, which is believed to combat anxiety and improve sleep.

The provinces, however, will determine pretty much everything else, including how cannabis products are distributed at the wholesale level, sold at the retail level and the prices for everything from dried marijuana leaves to condensed oils to edible products containing THC.

The provinces will even be able to set the minimum age for marijuana use. The federal regulation pegs that age as 18, but every province will be able to set it higher, perhaps to coincide with the minimum drinking age.

Ottawa's decision to give provinces this form of regulatory power could be seen in a number of ways.

Cynically, handing the provinces the responsibility to regulate the distribution and sale of marijuana could be seen as downloading a complex and unwanted task.

Cannabis at a grey-market pot dispensary in Montreal. Quebec is among the provinces where existing cannabis dispensaries are creating headaches in advance of formal rules. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
Provinces like Ontario, Quebec and B.C., where illegal cannabis dispensaries are widespread and somewhat tolerated, may welcome the opportunity to regulate the cannabis retail industry.

But in Manitoba, where the Progressive Conservative government has urged Ottawa to hold off on legalization, this regulatory handoff may constitute yet another irritant in federal-provincial relations.

A day after Ottawa divulged more details of its legalization plans, the Pallister government isn't saying much.

"Our government recognizes there are numerous challenges to address while provinces adjust to marijuana legalization in Canada," Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said Monday in an emailed statement. 

"We have been preparing for expected federal legislation through extensive research and consultation and will further review the policies of their legislation when it's introduced."

This research dates back to the previous provincial government. Contrary to statements made by former premier Greg Selinger, who wanted Manitoba liquor stores to sell legal weed, the province has been studying the U.S. legalization experience to​ figure out what model would work well in Manitoba.

For example, it seems entirely logical to hand the Manitoba Liquor & Gaming Authority responsibility for enforcing a regulatory framework for cannabis distribution and sales. The LGA already enforces gambling and alcohol-related regulations.

Retail sales pose a bigger quandary. The province could choose to sell cannabis products through government stores, perhaps run by Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries. This is what Selinger once proposed in off-the-cuff comments that were later contradicted by provincial officials with more knowledge of the issue.

It's more likely for a Progressive Conservative government to allow private businesses to conduct some or all of the cannabis retailing. The apparent Tory disdain for cannabis legalization may be offset by the prospects of creating a new retail sector that would likely be more innovative and competitive than a closed market of government-run cannabis stores.

This is important, on a number of levels. On the customer-service side, consumers of legal cannabis products will be more likely to patronize establishments where the clerks can offer credible and knowledgeable advice.

Selling cannabis is not like selling bottles of wine or whiskey, which differ from each other in terms of flavour and aroma. Cannabis products are chosen mainly because of their various psychoactive effects, which are dictated by the relative levels of THC and cannabidiol.

THC-infused lollipops are displayed in Toronto in December. The provinces will be responsible for regulating the distribution and sale of cannabis products. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
In other words, the people who work at cannabis retailers have even more responsibility, when it comes to customer satisfaction, than do clerks at beer vendors or liquor stores. And that suggests the legal-cannabis retail environment may be more demanding and upscale than most purveyors of alcohol are now.

Another question to consider is the variety of marijuana products that will be on offer in Manitoba. If fewer strains or edibles are available for sale here than in Saskatchewan or Ontario, or if there is an inadequate supply of legal cannabis, the marijuana black market Ottawa hopes to eliminate through legalization will persist. 

Manitoba's retail price for cannabis product also has to be competitive in order for the black market to disappear. Organized crime elements who profit from marijuana now will continue to move illicit weed so if legal stuff is priced above the ability for consumers to pay.

Manitoba and the other provinces have a scant 15 months to figure out a regulatory system, assuming the Trudeau government is serious about enacting legalization on Canada Day, 2018.

If we get it wrong, the results may be a lot more bizarre than the U.S. prohibition of Kinder eggs.

CBC News is partnering with GoodTalk, a new engagement tool that lets Canadians watch and record video comments on top stories and even get featured on the CBC. Follow the links to try it out. 


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter 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. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.


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