News / Vancouver

Legal pot to leave 'no room for the black market': B.C.

B.C. sets 19+ age limit to buy marijuana starting next July.

A woman exhales while smoking a joint during the annual 420 marijuana rally on Parliament hill on April 20, 2016 in Ottawa.

Justin Tang / The Canadian Press

A woman exhales while smoking a joint during the annual 420 marijuana rally on Parliament hill on April 20, 2016 in Ottawa.

Next July, British Columbians over 19 will be allowed to buy weed that's controlled by the province's liquor distribution branch, the government revealed Tuesday.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth unveiled some key details about how the province will roll out the pot supply — controlling commercial supply through the existing Liquor Distribution Branch, for instance, but allowing it to be sold by a to-be-determined mix of private and public vendors.

"It's no secret to anyone that we have had an entrenched production industry for many years," Farnworth noted in a conference call with reporters. But once who can sell marijuana, and how, is finalized by early February, he said, "There will be no room for the black market."

That's a message that resonated with Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer Mark Lysyshyn, even though the authority had hoped for only public retailers, and an assurance that pot and alcohol wouldn't be sold together — because the combination can increase risks of impaired driving.

"We would have prefered to have seen a government monopoly on sales," the UBC population and public health clinical assistant professor added. "I guess what they're planning is a blended public-private model like we have with alcohol, which is OK, but we're hoping they will be sold at separate outlets, because we feel there are risks of using marijuana and alcohol together."

But on the legal minimum of age 19 — the same as for alcohol — Lysyshyn said that approach makes sense even though "early, heavy and regular" marijuana use can have a particularly unhealthy impact on young people.

"Some people would have liked to see an older age to protect youth," he noted, "but if youth are already using it at that age, it would just criminalize that behaviour.

"I think this is a best approach that will have the biggest impact on eliminating the black market that targets youth … where there's no control, and they can sell to anyone."

Nearly 50,000 British Columbians offered their input during provincial consultations this fall, plus more than 140 municipalities and First Nations, B.C. said.

Despite concerns expressed by some municipalities and critics of drug-related crime, Farnworth said that public safety remains top of mind as his government moves forward to meet Ottawa's reforms, a key plank in the federal Liberals' election platform.

But he said a lot more work needs to be done to iron out details on who exactly will be allowed to sell it — for instance, public liquor stores have been proposed, and several large private pharmacies expressed interest — as well as how it will be taxed or priced, which will be unveiled in late January or early February.

"I would prefer to see a uniform tax right across the country," Farnworth argued, "so we avoid the issue of the black market, and what we have with … the smuggling of cigarettes.

"We are acutely aware that the price is sensitive — and if taxation is too high, you don't discourage the black market."

He said he wants Ottawa to step up with a more aggressive education campaign about marijuana so that doesn't just fall to the provinces. But he rejected claims the reforms are simply another government tax grab.

"I'm not looking at it from a revenue generation perspective — down the road I'm sure we will be," he said. "But now there are a lot of up-front costs that are going to have to be dealt with … education and enforcement are part and parcel of that ... and I'd put in that treatment and addictions issues."

For Lysyshyn, educating the public about the rules and the risks is important, but on one condition.

"Hopefully we can be more realistic about them, instead of saying it's just dangerous," he said. "… In the past, when it's been illegal, all the risks and dangers were ignored because people see others around them using it."

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