Alberta will let the market reign when it comes to bricks-and-mortar cannabis stores – allowing licensed private outlets to spring up across the province, with the numbers and locations being determined mainly by the owner-operators.
However, the Alberta government will also play a major part in the legal recreational cannabis market as it will control and profit from all legal online sales.
Alberta is even leaving the door open to having provincial workers deliver the cannabis packages ordered through a government website, instead of by Canada Post or another courier.
The government argues its proposed law satisfies both the province's desire to bolster entrepreneurial activity – in a place where consumers are long used to private alcohol sales – with what it says is necessary government oversight of online sales to ensure customers' ages are verified. With its main cannabis legislation introduced Thursday, Alberta's NDP government says this hybrid system – different from what has been proposed by other provinces so far – is a good balance.
"This is a major shift for our province and one that has had to be made very quickly, with a lot of complex questions," said Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, speaking of the lead-up to Ottawa's planned legalization of recreational cannabis next July.
Under the dual-track system proposed Thursday, Alberta government-run online sales can begin as soon as recreational cannabis is legal.
Private entities will both profit from and bear the cost of setting up physical retail spaces. From a political point of view, the policy gives a nod to both the business and public-sector union constituencies the NDP government needs to satisfy.
Ms. Ganley said the government decided to take control of website sales specifically because of Albertans' fears that cannabis bought online would end up in the hands of youth. "One thing we heard loud and clear from Albertans is that they're still a little bit concerned about the online age verification process. So by handing that by way of the government, I think that gives the ability to control that in a way that can allay those fears."
Ms. Ganley said the province could potentially be competing with private, storefront retailers for cannabis sales. But the minister also said a lot of business will flow to bricks-and-mortar stores. She said that, especially in the first few years as the legal market is established, the costs to the provincial government – in terms of areas such as policing, education and health care – will exceed any revenues it will take in. The province does not yet have a forecast for revenues from online sales.
Alberta's legislation, if passed, will set the legal consumption age at 18 – as expected, the same as the drinking age – and would establish provincial offences for any youth possessing even small amounts of cannabis. It sets restrictions on where marijuana can be smoked or vaped.
The legislation would ban the sale of cannabis in the same location as alcohol, pharmaceuticals or tobacco. The bill would also give the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission the mandate to oversee distribution and enforcement. It is still unclear which government entity will control the online sales.
More details about the licensing process and requirements will come early in 2018. But owner-operators will face criminal record checks. As retailers seek to locate their stores, they will face minimum setback distances from schools. Owner-operators will be able to set their own prices, and will be able to sell cannabis and cannabis accessories, but not other items (officials noted they couldn't, for instance, sell bags of chips).
There won't be a limit on the number of retail outlets allowed in the province but the government says the commission will have the authority to manage the pace of development.
Ottawa has said it will legalize recreational cannabis by next summer but is leaving the specific implementation plans to individual provinces – creating a patchwork of policies and sales systems across the country. Ontario and Quebec will keep government control of all legal cannabis sales. Manitoba appears to be the only province, so far, to say it will allow private online sales. Quebec said no to any homegrown pot plants as it introduced legislation Thursday, while Alberta said it will follow the federal guideline of allowing up to four plants per household.