EDITORIAL: Legal weed requires more choices

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We’re about to embark on a grand experiment in legalizing recreational pot use with the aim of freeing up courts from prosecuting minor possession charges while fighting illicit drug sales and the violent crime associated with it.

But the biggest obstacle to that is a thriving black market.

To stamp that out, the territorial government must allow legitimate, private sector vendors to compete but the recently passed Bill 6 creates a barrier as it will only allow – at least for now — cannabis sales through NWT liquor stores. The NWT Liquor Commission will be responsible for importing cannabis, which will then be sold at the NWT’s six liquor stores and through an online purchasing system.

It’s understandable why the government prefers this model. It’s already in place and more or less does a reasonable job controlling the sale of alcohol.

But the story of cannabis is much different than booze.

For one, society has been long accustomed to buying pot in secret. Ambling up to the counter with a bottle of wine is no great source of trepidation for most consumers but buying cannabis alongside people buying booze – especially if those people are one’s neighbour, co-worker or child’s teacher – will be a great leap for many.

This factor alone is bound to keep the black market fires burning as cannabis users seek out discretion rather than legitimacy in their choice of pot dealers.

Buyers of illegal cannabis will need incentives to switch to legal weed and the government’s proposed system of corralling users with booze buyers at liquor stores will likely prove ineffective in convincing people to purchase their weed there, which means the liquor commission’s attempts at a cost-effective and efficient distribution system will also be ineffective.

Liquor commission sales online are also suspect. There are already so many choices from private merchants online there is no way for the GNWT to compete unless it intends to drastically undersell them. If the government is intent on applying taxes and administration fees on sales that’s just not going to happen.

These problems would be better addressed by moving cannabis sales to stand-alone retailers but in settings less likely to cause discomfort for consumers.

This is not to say that the GNWT should be issuing licences willy-nilly to anyone wanting to sell cannabis. Potential vendors will need strict background checks and training, which is the case in Alberta where the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission expects to issue about 250 licences for cannabis stores in the first year of legalization.

In an article we published Wednesday, Edward Eggenberger, the owner of both of the city’s liquor stores, noncommittally implied that he might be selling cannabis at the Liquor Shop on Borden Drive.

If this turns out to be the case, legal cannabis would only be sold from one location in the city, further incentivizing the black market.

Sarah Murphy, owner of Harley’s Hardrock Saloon, said she wants to sell cannabis but has so far been denied.

The GNWT should waste no time opening up more avenues for sales. Without more retail options, legal cannabis will become only a tiny trickle alongside a torrent of black market choices.

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