Canadians now have an idea of when they will be able to purchase recreational marijuana, who can buy it and how much, but where and how cannabis is sold remains up to provinces that are offering only vague opinions on the eventual retail rules for the drug.
Now that the federal task force has recommended against selling cannabis in liquor stores – an idea floated in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario – it is unclear whether sales will be at government-run outlets, pharmacies or private shops. The panel recommended provinces and territories control the wholesale distribution of marijuana, but work closely with municipalities to create their own approach to selling recreational pot, which Ottawa expects could happen two years from now.
The panel's findings echoed some of Vancouver's rules to keep its dispensaries and their products away from kids, but British Columbia was clear it would prefer not to entrench the market position of these illegal stores that exploded on the West Coast and then spread to Toronto.
"I'm not impressed [with dispensaries]. It's a free-for-all out there as far as I'm concerned," said B.C. Solicitor-General Mike Morris, a former Mountie who added that marijuana has never touched his lips.
"A lot of these dispensaries don't have public health forefront in their minds, and it is in ours."
Michael McLellan, a Toronto-based spokesman for a pot-dispensary advocacy group called the Canadian Cannabis Retail Council, welcomed the possibility of independent "dedicated storefronts" to sell recreational marijuana. His group, which grew out of a Toronto coalition formed after raids on dozens of Toronto dispensaries last May, is willing to accept regulations to ensure its products are safe, he said.
Mr. McLellan said he hopes new laws also allow employees charged at Canada's hundreds of illegal storefronts to work in the legal industry.
Mr. Morris said his staff and those in other provincial ministries are waiting on the federal government to introduce its bill legalizing cannabis next spring to create their own rules.
The federal panel's final report also recommended recreational cannabis be sold through the mail, in part so that those in remote and rural communities can have access. However, the group warned that selling cannabis in government liquor stores – for which Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has advocated – could lead many more Canadians to use cannabis and possibly mix it with booze, which could greatly increase rates of impaired driving.
Ontario's Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi was tight-lipped about what sort of retail system the province prefers. He said he had not had a chance to read the report Tuesday.
"We're nowhere close to making those decisions; these are recommendations," he said at an unrelated announcement in Toronto. "There's a lot of analysis that has to be done … this is a complex file, this is a very complex issue. This is the end of prohibition of our time. We have to get it right."
Mr. Naqvi, who said he has never smoked marijuana, said the government was mostly concerned about ensuring social responsibility.
"Ontario will advocate and develop a regime for the regulated use of recreational marijuana that will ensure we protect our youth and vulnerable, that we promote public health and safety and focus on prevention and harm reduction," he said.
Liberal insiders say Ms. Wynne was only "musing" about liquor store sales last year and the government has no serious plans tor put pot in the province's 654 outlets. The union that represents LCBO employees is lobbying for the Crown corporation to sell marijuana.
One source pointed to the model used by the state of Washington: Under such a system, a government agency would buy the marijuana from growers as a means of ensuring quality and cutting out organized crime, then wholesale it to private, pot-specific stores. The stores would be subject to strict conditions to ensure there are not too many of them and they are not near schools.
Alberta's Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said her province, unlike other jurisdictions, does not sell liquor through government-run stores, so it could create a new model.
"It makes it a little bit easier," she told reporters on Tuesday. "We have a lot of consultation to do with our municipal partners in terms of where to go with that and our law enforcement partners."
Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang, architect of the country's first dispensary bylaw, said provincial governments must allow enough storefront access to cannabis to displace the black market. Cities should now create bylaws for the retail sale of the drug, he said.
"I recommend they do what the City of Vancouver did," he said, adding that the bylaws can be easily modified once the federal and provincial governments unveil new rules.
So far, the Canadian Pharmacists Association and the drug stores have signalled only that they want a piece of medical sales.
But London Drugs' vice-president of pharmacy, John Tse, said drug stores have secure delivery networks if governments decide they are the best option for recreational pot.
With a report from Jeff Gray