Politics·The House

Justin Trudeau sparks debate over where to sell pot

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes the idea of selling pot at provincial liquor stores. Not all provinces or public health experts agree.

Public health experts, Quebec finance minister don't like the idea of using liquor stores

Pot plants are pictured at medical marijuana producer Tweed Inc. in Smiths Falls, Ont. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana - but exactly how and where to do that is the subject of debate even among supporters. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may favour selling marijuana at the same place you buy your favourite bottle of scotch, but that combination doesn't sit well with at least one province as well as some public health officials.

Legalizing pot was a Liberal election pledge, one Trudeau pitched as way to make communities safer. He says government regulation of pot sales would hurt organized crime and keep the drug away from kids.

In an interview with Montreal news site La Presse, Trudeau explained why he thinks liquor stores could be an appropriate place for Canadians to buy the drug.

"If adults can freely buy marijuana in places like the SAQ [Quebec's provincially run liquor stores], pushers will no longer have the capacity to sell it to adults and only selling it to young people will be both risky and less profitable," he told the newspaper.

Quebec's finance minister quickly smacked down the suggestion.

"I have no plan, no idea, no intention of selling it," Carlos Leitao told reporters in Quebec City on Thursday, La Presse reported. "It's up to the federal government to figure out how to sell it."

Later Thursday, Leitao put out a statement on his Facebook page "clarifying" his original comments.

Leitao said legalizing marijuana is a complex process that will take time. He said it is premature to talk about how to distribute pot in Quebec, but that the choices would be made by Quebec's government.

Public health worries

Some public health officials have been raising concerns about the model, too.

B.C.'s Public Health Officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, says the way alcohol is currently sold encourages accessibility and consumption.

That's not something the federal government is likely to want.

"Putting a cannabis distribution system within the liquor store would be counter to public health ethos and the public health goal of minimizing harms," Kendall added.

He also points to the potential harm of one-stop shopping for both pot and alcohol. Dr. Kendall says there's evidence that drinking and smoking pot doesn't just add forms of intoxication together, but instead has a "multiplier" effect. In essence, it's likely to make users considerably more intoxicated.

Once again, it's something governments probably don't want to encourage.

He cites the example of Oregon, where marijuana has been legalized. While one person can have both a liquor licence and a licence to sell pot, the rules prohibit selling both in the same location.

Ontario, Blair side with Trudeau

Trudeau is hardly alone, though. In December, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said it "makes a lot of sense" to sell marijuana through Ontario liquor stores, saying it was well-suited to put the "social responsibility" aspects in place. 

Justin Trudeau said Thursday his government will work with the provinces and municipalities when it comes to the distribution and sale of marijuana - but he thinks provincial liquor stores are a good choice. (CBC)

Trudeau has put MP Bill Blair in charge of finding answer to questions including how to regulate marijuana and where to sell it. The former Toronto police chief will lead a federal-provincial task force that will look at how a legalized system ought to work.

Last month, Blair told the Toronto Star he liked the liquor store approach, too.

"I think there are certain modifications or adjustments that we may have to make for cannabis as opposed to alcohol, but I think there is already a strong system in place for the control and regulation" of marijuana sales, Blair said.

Trudeau was asked about Quebec's apparent refusal to sell the drug during a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

When it comes to the distribution and sale of marijuana, the prime minister said, he expects to work with the provinces and municipalities, adding he would "adjust in a way that works with their priorities."