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Marijuana sales in British Columbia could vary between cities: minister

A man smokes a joint during a rally in downtown Vancouver.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government has launched a five-week consultation process around the legalization of marijuana and says the way the drug is purchased could differ from city to city.

The minister in charge of the file told a news conference Monday that Vancouverites might prefer to continue buying marijuana through dispensaries, while other communities opt for something else.

"One size does not fit all," B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth told reporters.

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The federal government has committed to legalizing the recreational use of marijuana by July. Ontario unveiled its retail and distribution model earlier this month.

Mr. Farnworth acknowledged his province is playing catch-up, given the recent election and delay in forming government. He said B.C. and other provinces have asked Ottawa for more time, although it appears unlikely they will receive it.

But the minister said B.C.'s consultation process – which runs until Nov. 1 – is necessary, given the wide array of views.

"I think it's been made pretty clear that people want to have a say, and local government wants to have a say, and the industry would like to have a say," he said.

Mr. Farnworth said any legislative changes would have to be implemented in the spring session. He said some aspects of B.C.'s plan will be uniform. For instance, he said the legal age of use will be the same throughout the province. The federal government has said the minimum age will be 18 but provinces can raise it. Mr. Farnworth said B.C. could harmonize the legal age for marijuana with its legal age for alcohol, which is 19.

But other elements of B.C.'s plan, the minister said, could vary. He said some municipalities may want one retail model over another.

When asked what would happen to existing dispensaries in Vancouver and throughout B.C., the minister said that's why the province wants to hear from local governments. "Some communities may say, 'Yes, we want dispensaries.' Others may say, 'We don't want dispensaries.' The key question, though, from my perspective, is that whatever retail model we have in place is a legal model using legal product and we get the black market out of it," he said.

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Kerry Jang, a Vancouver councillor who has been the city's point person on cannabis issues, joined Mr. Farnworth at Monday's event and said the public consultation is an important step that will allow British Columbians to share their insights.

Dana Larsen, director of Sensible BC, which has advocated for marijuana decriminalization, said in an interview he plans to write a submission to the province.

Mr. Larsen said he'd like to see B.C. grant grow licences and bring existing cannabis businesses into the legalization framework.

The Ontario government has said it plans to launch a monopoly of cannabis stores, with 40 to open next year. It has said its new system will mean the end of private-sector storefronts currently selling pot.

Mr. Larsen said he does not want B.C. to follow Ontario's approach.

Rielle Capler, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia who studies cannabis issues, said B.C. will need to determine not only the minimum age of consumption, but where people can use marijuana, where they can access it, and how to handle cannabis-impaired drivers.

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She said she is also interested to see what happens with the production of the marijuana itself.

"Production is regulated at the federal level but it has great implications for how cannabis is accessed in the province. That's something the province will need to be in discussion with the federal government about," she said in an interview.

M-J Milloy, a research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said in an interview he'd like to see a system that offers a regulated product at a fair price that involves both local and national producers and improves the health and well-being of British Columbians.

He did question whether there would be enough of a marijuana supply when it is legalized. Mr. Larsen predicted a shortage within a matter of days.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is questioning why edible marijuana is not included in the government’s bill to legalize pot. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says work is ongoing to regulate cannabis in “all of its forms.” The Canadian Press
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