Battle over future of legal marijuana in B.C. just starting

Big pot decisions face province as Ottawa presses ahead (with video)

A federal task force’s road map to legalize recreational marijuana sales would leave the problem of exactly how pot dealing should be regulated to the B.C. government.

The 80 recommendations released Tuesday urge separate retail storefronts to sell pot, rather than allowing sales through existing liquor stores or outlets that sell tobacco, but what form retailing should take would be left to the provinces, presumably in consultation with municipalities.

It leaves retail pot sellers who have defied the criminal law to open medical marijuana “dispensaries” well positioned, especially in cities like Vancouver that have already regulated them.

“I very much expect those dispensaries to continue to transition into the fully legal system as this goes forward,” said dispensary owner Dana Larsen. “The question is where we get our supply from. I’m not opposed to buying cannabis from licensed producers if our current suppliers can become licensed.”

RELATED: Sell marijuana in storefronts and through the mail: federal task force

It’s yet to be seen how the Trudeau government will translate the recommendations into federal legislation to meet the election campaign promise to legalize pot.

The B.C. government has given little sign so far of where it leans on exercising provincial jurisdiction over legal pot.

Public Safety Minister Mike Morris said government officials have been studying the issue and said the province’s top priority will be public health and safety, including the protection of children and curbing drug-impaired driving.

“It’s early in the process,” Morris said. “Whatever tax regime we bring in we have to make sure that it’s not going to promote the illicit distribution of cannabis across British Columbia or Canada.”

He said existing dispensary operators will have to conform to whatever final regulations are set by the province. “I can see many of them shutting down.”

NDP MLA Mike Farnworth accused the B.C. Liberal government of failing to consult the public sooner.

He said outstanding questions include whether the province would share any pot revenue it gets with municipalities.

“There are key questions around what the kinds of products are that can be sold,” Farnworth said. “In Washington State you can only sell dry edibles, but in Oregon you can sell a much broader range –  ice cream, for example.”

Would the province allow municipalities that don’t want legal marijuana outlets at all to refuse them?

“I think that will be a debate,” said B.C. lawyer and pot reform advocate Kirk Tousaw. “Municipalities are going to react to these things in different ways. This is a step and there are battles to come. And that is probably one of them.”

Tousaw said the proposed framework is generally “a win” for all involved, particularly established dispensaries and licensed producers.

But he took issue with some proposed regulations.

Home growers would be allowed to grow up to four plants up to 100 cm tall themselves for personal use. Tousaw called that limit arbitrary with no logic behind it.

“You can grow one plant two feet tall with hundreds of branches under a giant net that never reaches 100 centimetres tall but produces more cannabis than 50 plants,” he said.

And a proposed 30-gram limit for personal possession is at odds with the fact there is no such limit for alcohol, Tousaw added.

“You can back a pickup truck up to a liquor store and buy enough booze to kill a small town.”

The task force calls for tight regulation of cultivation for commercial sale to track product from seed to sale, to keep it from entering the black market and to allow for health-based recalls.

That would appear to undermine the dream of pot reform advocates for much more liberal policies that favour new startups, not just big corporate producers.

Tousaw said he still hopes an exemption could be created for small craft growers to sell their pot the way wineries do in their on-site stores or at farmers markets.

The report calls for more work with the provinces to determine how legal pot would be taxed, with an equitable distribution of revenues.

It recommends that more potent high-THC pot be sold at higher prices or with extra taxes.

Larsen said Ottawa must not go so far as to kill the industry before it gets off the ground.

“The main way to solve most of the problems with cannabis prohibition is to make sure legal cannabis is cheaper than it is now,” he said. “If they try to tax it too much, if they try to put extra taxes on high potency marijuana and things like that, it just perpetuates the black market.”

Other findings of the federal task force

  • 18 should be the minimum age to buy recreational marijuana, but provinces like B.C. could make it the same as their legal drinking age of 19.
  • Pot tasting lounges should be allowed in retail storefronts.
  • Retail outlets should be regulated so they aren’t clustered together and to keep an appropriate distance from schools, parks and community centres.
  • Current medical marijuana regulations to remain unchanged for now.
  • Further study of how to regulate drugged driving, the potential development of a THC limit in the blood for enforcement, and exploration of roadside screening device options.
  • Tightly regulate advertising and packaging.
  • Pot edibles can’t be packaged to be appealing to children or mimic candy.
  • Apply same current restrictions on public smoking of tobacco to marijuana smoking and vaping.

Marijuana Legalization Task Force Report by Jeff Nagel on Scribd

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