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British Columbia B.C. union, private liquor stores want legalized marijuana sales to go through them

Marijuana at the Vancouver Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary in Vancouver, B.C. on April 28. Marijuana is not a medicine, it is not approved by Health Canada and the way research is trending, it will never get that coveted designation.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

British Columbians may soon be able to buy recreational bud along with their beer, if private liquor stores and the union representing workers in government-owned stores get their way.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union and the B.C. Private Liquor Store Association have joined forces to call for legal marijuana to be sold through the existing alcohol retail system, in both government and private stores.

The partnership, called the Responsible Marijuana Retail Alliance of B.C., advocates for pot to be available in liquor stores by Christmas of 2016.

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BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said her union, which represents workers in nearly 200 public liquor stores, has not taken a position on whether it supports Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plan to legalize marijuana.

"But we do believe that when this happens, it ought to be sold in the most socially responsible way possible, in an age-controlled environment with the strongest track record of checking identification," she told a news conference Wednesday.

Smith called legalization an "incredible opportunity" for B.C., because it already has an excellent system for distributing and selling alcohol.

"Creating a new parallel system for the sale of non-medical marijuana will be incredibly costly, time consuming and would divert money from social programs, education and addiction treatment into an additional bureaucracy," she said.

Damian Kettlewell of the private liquor association — made up of more than 200 private liquor stores in the province — said they envision a system that is similar to beer and wine industries.

Producers of all sizes would sell their product to a central wholesaler at the liquor distribution branch, which would then distribute it to stores.

Kettlewell stressed that the groups only want to sell recreational pot, not medical marijuana.

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He also said the federal government should follow in the footsteps of American states that have allowed residents to grow small amounts of marijuana at home for personal use — similar to home brewing.

"The tax revenue from marijuana could fund a host of programs, from addiction recovery, prevention programs aimed at youth, education about the dangers of impaired driving, to more general programs like health and education," he said.

The details of tax rates and program spending are for the federal and provincial governments to decide, he added.

It's not clear yet which level of government would give the go-ahead to sell marijuana in liquor stores. Smith said she believes that when the federal government legalizes the drug, it will fall under provincial jurisdiction, similar to alcohol.

Municipalities also exert control over land use and zoning, and Kettlewell said the unions support the right of communities to decide against allowing pot to be sold locally.

B.C.'s Justice Ministry said in a statement that it's too early to speculate on the specifics of any future legislation or its implementation.

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"Marijuana control is a federal responsibility and B.C. will continue to monitor and would participate in any consultation the government of Canada may conduct around proposed changes," the statement said.

The federal Justice Department also said it was premature to comment on specifics.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has said government liquor stores are the best place to sell marijuana when the federal government legalizes the drug.

The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, has also called for legal pot to be sold in provincial liquor stores.

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