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Business group wants piece of legal pot pie

If Ottawa is going to legalize it, NWT should privatize it.

That was the message the Northwest Territories business community had for MLAs on Thursday night.

Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, says Yellowknife business people are eager to open legal pot shops, if government will let them.
Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo

During a public meeting at the legislative assembly building, both the Yellowknife and NWT chambers of commerce urged a joint committee of regular MLAs to allow business people to become licensed cannabis vendors.

Thursday's meeting was the final stop on the committee's an 11-day, 16-community tour of the territory to gather public input on Bill 6, the proposed pot law.

The plan right now is for cannabis to be distributed by the NWT Liquor Commission and sold exclusively in liquor stores.

The law does, however, leave open the possibility of “cannabis-only” stores at some point in the future.

“'Maybe later' is not clear enough for business planning purposes,” Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife chamber, told MLAs.

“Demonstrate that you have confidence in our vibrant business community and local entrepreneurs who are more than willing to comply with any and all regulations that you choose to put forward.”

A private, retail cannabis industry has the potential to create new jobs, fill vacant storefronts and drive foot traffic to downtown Yellowknife, said Everett.

She said the chamber has had about a dozen inquiries related to starting a cannabis business – entrepreneurs are now waiting on government for the green light.

The retail model proposed by Alberta could work in NWT, said Everett.

In that province, prospective cannabis business owners, shareholders and key employees will have to sit for an interview and undergo criminal and financial background checks.

Everyone working in a cannabis store -- even contracted security guards -- will be required to complete an online certification program that trains staff on the laws and their responsibility to customers.

Alberta is not putting a cap on the total number of cannabis licenses available, but stipulates that no person or entity can hold more than 15 inside the province.

Should the government privatize the cannabis industry, Everett expects a number of new businesses will open up in short order.

A federal task force on cannabis legalization and regulation strongly discouraged the sale of cannabis in liquor stores, but recognized that setting up separate pot shops may not be possible in small and remote communities.

In their travels, the MLAs were told that NWT's proposed retail model puts people living with alcohol addictions at risk of a relapse.

“Some people who are getting away from that addiction now have to walk into a store that's where their addiction is,” said Shane Thompson, the committee chair and MLA for Nahendeh.

“You go in to get your cannabis and all of a sudden – the urge to buy a bottle.”

The government need not fear business's ability to safely sell cannabis in a regulated market, said Caroline Wawzonek, director of the Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce.

“Business and industry in the Northwest Territories is amply able to follow regulations when they are clear and when they are transparent,” Wawzonek told the committee.

Flexibility, transparency and certainty in cannabis regulations will encourage entrepreneurship, she said, and create a competitive environment that “is ultimately better for consumers and better for the economy.”

No committee member said on Thursday that they were against privatization.

Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu noted the smaller communities don't have liquor stores, and preventing private pot outlets from opening in those places will keep the black market thriving.

Under the proposed legislation, people 19 years of age and older would be allowed to buy cannabis, and carry up to 30 grams in public.

The executive director of the Registered Nurses Association said long-term, frequent cannabis use by young people can have lasting impacts on cognition, memory and learning, and can hasten the onset of mental illness.

Denise Bowen said personally, she would prefer the legal age for buying cannabis be raised to 24 of 25.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said 19-to-25-year-olds consume the most pot, and 19 was chosen as the legal pot-smoking age a way to curb the illicit market.

He said in the committee's visits to schools, the common refrain from students was that they would not wait to smoke weed until their 25th birthday.