Judging by a Sept. 19 public meeting, it appears many people in Hay River are less than enthusiastic about the coming legislation of the recreational use of cannabis.

A GNWT-sponsored “dialogue” on cannabis legalization on Sept. 19 in Hay River featured a number of territorial government representatives, including, left to right, Kelly Bluck, director of fiscal policy with the Department of Finance; Kami Kandola, deputy chief public health officer with the Department of Health and Social Services; Gary Toft, director of policy, legislation and communications with the Department of Health and Social Services; and Meagan Birch, a senior policy analyst with the Department of Infrastructure. Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

“I just think that this whole initiative is regressive,” said Jane Groenewegen, former Hay River South MLA and a former minister of Health and Social Services.

Groenewegen said legalization next year by the federal government will go against efforts to counter substance abuse in the NWT and trying to encourage people to make healthy choices.

“This whole discussion seems weird to me, to be honest,” she said, noting she has never used illegal drugs or alcohol.

“We should not be normalizing smoking drugs,” Groenewegen added.

She was far from alone in questioning the wisdom of legalization, and the specifics of how that will be implemented.

The public dialogue was sponsored by the GNWT because, under the proposed federal legislation, individual provinces and territories will have the power to make certain adjustments to the law.

That involves such things as the legal age for consumption, public smoking of cannabis, possession limits, community restriction options and possible retail models.

For example, the legal age of consumption can be increased from a baseline of 18 by a reasonable amount.

Deputy mayor Donna Lee Jungkind suggested 25 years of age to prevent damage to the still-developing brain.

That age of consumption would create a social norm, said Jungkind. “We have an opportunity to say this is what we deem acceptable.”

As for public smoking of marijuana, one person suggested smoking of the drug should be limited to the privacy of home.

There seemed to be general agreement that additional money should be spent by government to prevent more young people from using marijuana.

Following the expression of a number of concerns, Dewey Roy asked if anyone at the meeting actually smoked marijuana.

When not surprisingly no one raised a hand, he said, “So here we are at a forum where nobody smokes pot.”

Roy said that means the people were helping to make decisions affecting other people who do smoke marijuana.

Not every comment appeared to list a problem with legalization.

One woman said a lot of people are looking for clean “organic” marijuana that is not laced with other drugs, and government control of production and distribution would ensure that.

Another woman said that would mean safer marijuana if it happens to get into the hands of young people.

“It’s our kids that we’re worried about,” she said. “If they’re going to get their hands on it, we want them to have something that’s not going to kill them. And to me that’s the most important thing. If it’s legalized and it’s clean, they’re not going to die.”

There are three options for the NWT for sale of legal cannabis.

The first is a liquor store model involving setting up storefronts that sell legal cannabis and are the only places to buy it.

The second option is the tobacco model, in which a business can apply for a licence to sell marijuana under certain restrictions and guidelines.

The third option is for the GNWT to do nothing and allow a federally-regulated mail order system to take effect.

“If we do nothing, the federal system works here in the Northwest Territories,” said Kelly Bluck, director of fiscal policy with the Department of Finance. “If we do another model, then it’s ours that works and the federal has to back off.”

Regardless of the method of sale, legal marijuana will come from licensed producers and growers.

As of July 2018, only dried marijuana will be legally for sale, not edibles such as brownies and candies. However, federal legislation is expected to follow later for those items and there is nothing against people making their own brownies and oils.

Bluck said one of the reasons behind legalization is to get rid of the black market for marijuana.

“You’re paying a premium right now if you’re buying marijuana because it’s illegal, and production of marijuana is not that expensive,” she explained. “So once it’s legal, the black market will drop their price to compete with this legal market. So we’re not expecting that we can put in a lot of tax, like we have sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol, because the black market already is there and it still exists. So in order to wipe out the black market we are not going to be taxing very high.”

The public input collected at the Hay River meeting and others around the NWT – and through an online survey – will help create a report on the GNWT options by early to mid October.

“Your views will significantly influence how the territory proceeds,” Bluck told the people at the meeting in Hay River.

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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