N.W.T.'s pot plan leaves out independent business, says Yellowknife entrepreneur

The Northwest Territories proposal for legal marijuana was just released Friday, but it's already being criticised by a Yellowknife business owner and a regular MLA.

Sara Murphy frustrated liquor stores expected to get first crack at selling legal marijuana

Sara Murphy owns Harley's Hard Rock Saloon and related businesses. She's thinking of moving to a bigger space and intends to include a marijuana dispensary. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Sara Murphy has an idea.

The owner of Harley's Hard Rock Saloon in Yellowknife wants to capitalize on the federal government's plans to legalize marijuana.

So she began planning for a new business to do that. It's called Premium MJ.

She wants to start by selling paraphernalia such as pipes, grinders and bongs. Then she wants to sell marijuana and eventually produce it.

But Friday's announcement of the territorial government's proposed marijuana legislation threw those plans into limbo.

The proposal calls for a highly controlled system of import, distribution and sale — at least at first. The N.W.T. Liquor Commission will import marijuana, which will in turn be sold through the territory's liquor stores or through a government mail-order site.

That's not fair, Murphy says, because  Yellowknife's liquor stores are privately owned.

"Why is it that their privately owned establishment can sell marijuana but mine can't?" she asked.

The territorial government's marijuana legalization report rationalizes liquor-store sales because liquor stores have experience safely selling controlled substances through a storefront business model. It goes on to state the territorial government will explore other retail options after marijuana is legal.

"There will be nothing in legislation that prevents the future sale of cannabis in 'cannabis-only' stores," the report says. 

Future changes at minister's discretion

The proposed legislation will leave a window for private sales, said Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart.

"It comes down to the (finance) minister's discretion," he said. "So in effect the minister is setting himself to be lobbied at by a lot of Northerners who see this as an opportunity."

Testart wants to see the territorial government do more for entrepreneurs.
Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart says the Northwest Territories government could do more for entrepreneurs who want to get into the marijuana business when legalisation comes next year. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

He says the territorial government supported Northern entrepreneurs who wanted to get into the diamond business when diamond mining took off in the territory, so he'd like to see the same support offered to businesspeople who want to get into the cannabis industry.

"Unlike diamonds which aren't forever, cannabis is going to stick around," he said.

"We have a climate that enables us and technology that allows Northerners to grow on an economical basis and we have businesses that want this opportunity."

Other concerns

Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne expressed concern over the fast pace of legalization.

He wants the territorial government to pressure the federal government for another six months to a year, to give time to iron out several aspects of the legislation.

"There still remains many unanswered questions around public safety and enforcement," he stated in an email. "If public safety and enforcement are unclear, then we are simply asking for a disaster to take place."

Proposals at a glance

The territorial government's other proposals for recreational cannabis laws include:

  • The minimum age to possess and consume cannabis will be set at 19.

  • The maximum amount a person can possess is set at 30 grams and four plants.

  • N.W.T. communities will have the discretion to restrict or prohibit cannabis through plebiscite, like with liquor laws.

  • People can smoke on their private property, trails, highways, roads, streets and in parks when they aren't in use for a public event.

  • Municipalities will have the discretion to restrict smoking in public areas.

  • Residential property owners will have the ability to make their buildings smoke free.

MLAs are set to debate the proposed legislation during the next sitting of the Legislative Assembly in February and March.

Cannabis is expected to become legal in Canada July 1.


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