Regular MLAs and the minister of justice are at loggerheads over who in the Northwest Territories should be able to sell cannabis when it becomes legal.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said the decision about whether to permit private pot shops, or allow sales only through liquor stores and the mail, is a piece of the NWT’s proposed Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Implementation Act that is of significant interest to the public.

Robert C. McLeod, centre, the minister of Finance, Louis Sebert (right), the minister of Justice, and a standing committee of regular MLAs held a clause-by-clause reading of Bill 6, the proposed cannabis law, on Monday.
Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo

“We heard loud and clear that bootlegging and the illicit trade of drugs is a major concern, especially in the small communities,” said Testart, who visited 16 communities with a committee of regular MLAs to consult with residents on Bill 6, the proposed pot law.

“By expanding on the number of retail outlets for cannabis, we will allow greater access to supply and further competition that may actually result in a lower price point which would allow for further disruption of the illicit trade of cannabis in the Northwest Territories,” he said.

Right now the GNWT is planning for the liquor commission to be the territory’s sole cannabis wholesaler and for liquor stores – six exist in seven out of the NWT’s 33 communities – to be the only brick-and-mortar locations at which cannabis is sold.

The government reasons that cannabis is a controlled substance that causes in impairment, and therefore, it should be regulated in the same way as alcohol.

Bill 6 does, however, leave open the door for private, cannabis-only stores at some point in the future.

On Monday, the ministers of Justice and Finance joined regular members of the legislative assembly for a clause-by-clause reading of the proposed cannabis law.

Tom Beaulieu, MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh said that in communities without liquor stores, the GNWT’s proposed retail model will do nothing to combat illegal drug dealing.

Nehendeh MLA Shane Thompson said a private cannabis market would create employment opportunities in smaller communities and would help keep a greater share of the revenue from cannabis sales inside the territory.

Louis Sebert, the minister of justice, refused to support an amendment to the bill that would allow for private cannabis stores right away, saying a “thin majority” of respondents to an online survey supported the liquor store model.

“The notion… that the market will be able to sustain stores on every corner like Starbucks needs to be challenged,” he said.

“Cannabis is not coffee. I do not believe we should be rushing to support a retail landscape that could see cannabis on every corner.

“We don’t do this with retail for alcohol.”

RJ Simpson, the MLA for Hay River North, said Sebert was acting like a “strongman” for suggesting that privatization would lead to cannabis stores popping up on every street corner.

“It’s Northwest Territories, there’s no any kind of store on every corner,” he said, “but I can take you to a bunch of corners that are selling cannabis right now.”

The federal task force on cannabis legalization strongly discouraged jurisdictions from selling cannabis in the same stores as liquor.

Simpson reiterated the task force’s concerns about the impacts on people who want to buy marijuana but stay away from alcohol.

“On the face of it, it seems like a mistake considering the problems we have with alcohol in this territory,” he said.

Municipalities may soon tax hotel stays

Six communities are inching closer to gaining the power to tax hotel stays.

The GNWT plans to introduce a bill this sitting that would grant communities that collect their own municipal taxes the ability to levy a tourist accommodation tax, Premier Bob McLeod said on Thursday.

If the Act Amend to the Cities, Towns and Villages Act passes, Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River, Norman Wells, Fort Simpson and Fort Smith would be able to place a tax on visitor accommodations within municipal limits.

Revenue from the tax would be used by municipal governments to promote tourism.

A hotel tax was first floated in 2010 and has been on Yellowknife’s wish list for some time.

Yellowknife is one of the last Canadian cities without a tourist accommodation tax, Kerry Penney, the city’s director communications and economic development, told Yellowknifer earlier this month.

“We’re eager and excited to see this legislation be passed,” she said.

The bill also proposes changing the law to allow homeowners to finance energy-saving retrofits through a local improvement charge.

Cochrane lays out ministerial ambitions

The new minister of Education, Culture and Employment says she has priorities above and beyond those spelled out her mandate letter from the premier.

For starters, she wants to see more women in power.

“Nothing against our premier, I love our premier, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a woman Premier that could actually give mandates out to departments?” Caroline Cochrane said in response to questioning by Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green.

Cochrane also has plans for a pilot project that would transform a daycare centre into a community hub and a place that supports education.

She also wants to explore opportunities for self-employment in small communities where work is scarce.

Perhaps Cochrane’s greatest near-term challenge will be how she handles decisions about the future of Aurora College.

Enrollment to the college’s social work and bachelor of education programs have been put on hold for a second academic year, pending an external review of the school’s operations, governance and programming.

That review will be made public today.

Cochrane, a former social worker, said she does not want the fate of Aurora College to “become political.”

“I am not going to be the minister to stand up and say, ‘This is what I am doing,’” she said.

“I am going to be the minister that says, ‘Let’s work together to make sure that these are the best post-secondary options for our youth for our future, for our grandparents, and many to come.'”

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