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Territorial government pot proposals half-baked

The territorial government has been passed a very difficult challenge from the federal government – orchestrate a societal sea-change concerning the sale, distribution and consumption of legalized marijuana by July 2018.

In keeping one of its main election promises from the 2015 election, the Trudeau government in Ottawa has pressed the provinces and territories into a feverish drive to develop workable and coherent legislation and distribution policies.

And for the most part what the GNWT has proposed appears to be a decent compromise between two extremes heard at public consultations – one that envisions a near total lifting of legal limitations and the stigma surrounding marijuana use and another that remains highly skeptical of decriminalization and the possible consequences on society.

Like alcohol, the legal age will be 19. And as with alcohol, it will be up to communities to decide whether cannabis will be restricted or prohibited. Special restrictions will be placed on novice drivers or drivers 21 or younger, prohibiting them from having cannabis in their systems while on the road. Residents, meanwhile, will be free to grow up to four cannabis plants in their homes.

Alas, the time crunch appears to have allowed some dissonance to creep into its proposals.

Take this scenario from the GNWT announcement on Friday: "Residents will also be allowed to smoke cannabis on trails, highways, roads, and streets, and in parks when not in use for a public event, unless municipal governments make bylaws that expand the areas where the smoking of cannabis is prohibited."

So people will be able to stroll down the avenue, lit blunt in hand but not an open beer? Odd that.

In addition, the GNWT says, "There will be no consumption of cannabis at cannabis retail outlets, and there will be no designated establishments where recreational cannabis can be consumed."

So the notion of having cannabis cafes is quashed – a bit too radical, perhaps? – even though there are licensed alcohol establishments all over the city.

And as for the retails outlets, the GNWT is tasking the NWT Liquor Commission with the importation and sale of cannabis. Which is fine.

However, the GNWT proposes the liquor commission use currently operating liquor stores to sell cannabis, which is troublesome.

Sara Murphy, who is working on creating a shop for cannabis accessories and hopes to eventually open a dispensary and become a licensed producer, points out the problem with that proposal.

"I think it's a terrible, terrible idea to put liquor and marijuana in the same place together, in the same way tobacco and liquor should not be put together," said Murphy.

"When you smoke marijuana and you also consume alcohol, all of the other symptoms are heightened.

"I believe that it's pretty self-destructive if you're going to be doing them both together. To put liquor and marijuana in the same store together promotes this."

Health Canada itself acknowledges that“combining alcohol with cannabis greatly increases the level of impairment and the risk of injury or death from accidents.”

The decision to initially go with liquor stores was clearly done out of expediency – the GNWT does state there nothing in the legislation that prevents 'cannabis only' stores in the future -- but in a territory already suffering from some of the highest addictions and impaired driving rates in the country, it seems incredibly imprudent to encourage residents to purchase their weed and alcohol at the same location.

So while the GNWT can be applauded for meeting the deadline under pressure there are a few fairly serious flaws that should be corrected before the legislation is drafted in final form.

There is much uncharted territory ahead but that's no reason for the GNWT to blunder ahead toward the treacherous shoals that are already in view.