Debate over private cannabis sales leaves MLAs at odds with N.W.T. justice minister

Debate over allowing private retailers to sell legal recreational cannabis in smaller communities across the N.W.T. was divided between the review committee selected to review Bill 6 and the Minister of Justice.

'Cannabis is not coffee,' says justice minister, arguing there isn't a market to support private sales

The standing committee on social development and government operations were responsible for the review of Bill 6: the Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Implementation Act. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Members of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly focused on private cannabis sales as they publicly debated individual sections of Bill 6 — the territory's proposed Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Implementation Act — Monday morning.

The debate was part of a clause-by-clause review of the bill undertaken by the assembly's standing committees on social development and government operations before the bill is voted on in the Legislative Assembly. That vote is expected to come during the current sitting of the Legislative Assembly, which began on May 24.

After hearing public opinion from 16 communities across the N.W.T., members of the standing committee recommended an amendment be added to the bill to allow for private retail sales of cannabis.

Cannabis is a public health concern in the N.W.T. and the current approach of prohibition is failing.- Kieron   Testart , Kam Lake MLA

The amendment won't prevent the sale through liquor stores — the territory's proposed method of distribution. 

Liquor commissions would still act as the wholesaler; however, the amendment would expand the depth of the legal cannabis retail system.

The major theme for allowing for private sales was to disrupt the sale of cannabis on the "black market" in the N.W.T. MLA for Hay River North, R.J Simpson, said he thinks "people desire a different approach," and the amendment is looking at cannabis legalization "from a harm reduction perspective."

Bill 6 currently proposes to sell cannabis to residents in communities without liquor stores through a mail-order system.

Several members of the committee spoke in favour of the proposed change. Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart, one of the MLAs who toured communities listening to feedback on the proposed bill, said that "we heard loud and clear that bootlegging and the illicit trade of drugs is a major concern, and [that] expanding the retail outlets of cannabis would disrupt the illicit trade."

Members in favour all spoke of the need for having a sales mechanism present in the small communities. Tom Beaulieu, the MLA for Tu Nedhé — Wiilideh, said that "by not having a legal entity in the community selling cannabis, then you will continue to feed the illegal drug trade."

MLA Frederick Blake Jr., who was against the proposed amendment, said he must respect the communities in his riding, which he said "were kind of leery of the availability — especially to minors."

MLA Daniel McNeely said he was surprised to learn about the "extent [that] cannabis is being consumed by the general public," including by high school-aged youth.

"Given the current legislation only allows you for various stores to open up when you have a larger marketplace," McNeely said, "it still allows for this unregulated cannabis product to get to the buyer."

'Cannabis is not coffee'

However, Louis Sebert, the territory's minister of justice, shot down the proposed amendment. He said he doesn't want to rush to support a market that could see cannabis on every corner.

"Cannabis is not coffee," said Sebert, challenging the idea that there is a market large enough to sustain private sales. "The primary objective of the cannabis legalization is not economic development."

Sebert said that unlike illegal dealers, private retailers will have to comply to a number of regulations in order to sell cannabis, such as paying property taxes, staff payroll and insurance fees. These expenses could raise the cost of cannabis, negating an advantage pointed out as a deterrent to black market sales. 

However, Simpson pointed out that that despite private retail stores not existing in the community, "I can take you to a bunch of corners that are selling cannabis right now.

"To say there isn't a market is short-sighted," he said.

Minister of Justice Louis Sebert doesn't support the amendment proposed by the review committee. He said a majority of N.W.T. residents expressed a preference for the liquor store model to be used. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Testart agreed, saying the proposed amendment wasn't meant to be a "cash cow."

"Cannabis is a public health concern in the N.W.T. and the current approach of prohibition is failing," he said.

MLA Blake Jr. said he hears from Sebert that he doesn't want to set the department up for failure.

"We can't foresee the future," he said. "I think we'll know in the first year what the sales are."

It's likely that the debate around private cannabis sales in the Northwest Territories isn't dead yet. MLAs can bring the amendment up in the Legislative Assembly for a vote, something that Testart says he hopes will happen during the coming week.