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B.C. Health Minister to push for pot reforms, regulated sales outlets

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said the federal medical marijuana system should be reformed to include face-to-face sales in outlets such as pharmacies instead of limiting it to the current mail-order system.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Health Minister says he will use meetings with his provincial and federal counterparts this week in Vancouver to push for recreational marijuana to be sold in locations that are strictly regulated and inspected, such as special kiosks at liquor stores.

Terry Lake also said the federal medical marijuana system should be reformed to include face-to-face sales in outlets such as pharmacies instead of limiting it to the current mail-order system, though he said dispensaries – which are flourishing in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto – should not be involved.

The oncoming legalization of marijuana will be on the agenda when ministers start two days of meetings this Wednesday, two weeks after MP Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, was tapped to oversee a federal-provincial task force that will create a framework for legalizing and regulating the recreational use of the drug.

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That process could take up to two years and, in the meantime, Mr. Lake said it's important for politicians and public-health officials to focus on two things: making the drug harder for young Canadians to get and enforcing strict quality controls, as Health Canada does now under its existing medical marijuana regime.

"We have an opportunity on the medical side to improve the system, as well as we do on the recreational side," he said.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when you are taking a product like this and making it legal."

Dipika Damerla, Ontario's associate minister of health, said in an e-mailed statement that she is looking forward to discussing the issue and stands by Premier Kathleen Wynne's endorsement of selling cannabis in liquor stores. Ms. Wynne said last month that legalized marijuana sales through government liquor stores "makes sense," arguing they would do the best job of ensuring the drug is sold responsibly.

A month after last fall's federal election, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger first posited such stores would be a good fit.

In B.C., the union representing workers in government liquor stores, as well as an industry group representing private stores, have also called for marijuana sales in their shops.

Mr. Lake said he would rather recreational pot be sold at these government or private stores in place of dispensaries, because they have a proven track record of enforcing age limits.

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However, he said there are real public-health concerns about placing bud next to beer. That means, at the very least, such stores should be strictly licensed and inspected and cannabis should be sold at "a separate pharmacy-type counter."

Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said it would be hard to allow those under 21 to buy liquor in one store but prohibit them from purchasing pot in that same shop if a higher age limit is imposed on marijuana sales, as some public-health experts are recommending.

Mr. Lake said his government lobbied Health Canada to allow stores to sell medical marijuana before it overhauled the rules in 2014 to switch from small-scale growers to a handful of commercial producers who mail their products directly to patients who have doctors' prescriptions.

There are roughly 500,000 medical-cannabis users in Canada over the age of 25, according to a survey commissioned by Health Canada. Fewer than 24,000 people were registered under the federal government's mail-order medical pot system at the end of last June.

That means, for now, illegal dispensaries and compassion clubs are likely supplying between 100,000 and 200,000 patients, while a remaining 300,000 or so people continue to turn to the black market, cannabis consultant Eric Nash told The Globe late last year.

Mr. Lake said he could envision a system where patients needing medical cannabis can buy from existing producers through pharmacies offering products with high levels of CBD – the compound credited with marijuana's therapeutic effects – and low levels of THC – pot's psychoactive compound. Conversely, consumers craving a recreational high would flock to stores selling cannabis with an opposite mix of the two compounds, he said.

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He praised the new federal Liberal government's commitment to legalizing the drug, noting "you can't pretend that people aren't going to use marijuana."

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