My Comments on Bill 6: Cannabis Legalization Act

As the Chair of the Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment (EDE) I was not a Member of the Joint Standing Committees that worked together to review Bill 6.  However, I have taken a keen interest in the work of my regular Member colleagues on the review of this proposed legislation. I have done this, as the Member for Yellowknife North, on behalf of my constituents, who care about the impacts that cannabis legalization will have on their community and I have also paid close attention to this work as the Chair of EDE who wants to see this initiative translate into business opportunities for northern entrepreneurs, and will clearly support economic diversification as outlined in our Mandate.

Before I speak more specifically to the findings of the joint Committees, I want to start by acknowledging the fine work they have done to undertake a comprehensive review of this extensive omnibus bill under a very tight time frame.  Given the circumstances, I think they have done a very good job of engaging with northerners and of reflecting their feedback in policy recommendations contained in this report and in a series of motions to amend the bill, which are designed to make this legislation the best that it can be.   I understand that we will be discussing proposed motions to amend Bill 6 tomorrow.  So, for today I will limit my remarks more generally to the Committee’s report.

As impressed as I am with the work of the joint Committees, I am somewhat unimpressed with the effort the government put into the development of Bill 6.  I have reviewed the “What We Heard Report”, which indicates that a slim majority of respondents support the Liquor Commission model. I don’t believe a “slim majority” constitutes a mandate for action, so I can’t help but feel that the GNWT had already decided on the Liquor Commission model out of a sense of panic about the demanding time frame for legalization set by the federal government AND out of a desire to retain full control of any profits generated by cannabis sales.  Mr. Chair, I will have more to say about the GNWT’s work to develop Bill 6 tomorrow, when we discuss further motions to amend Bill 6.  Suffice it to say, for now that I have hope further improvements can be made to this Bill before it receives final assent.

Mr. Chair, I mentioned the effort of the joint Committees to make this legislation the best that it can be.   I have been paying close attention to the lessons learned by Colorado in their move to legalize cannabis.  Their situation is admittedly different than ours, given that they are a jurisdiction producing legal cannabis in the midst of other jurisdictions where it is still illegal.  Nonetheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned.

One key lesson is that it is very hard roll back activities and programs related to cannabis legalization, once they are authorized by legislation and the legislation is put into force.   On its consultation, the joint Committees heard that people support the overall intent of the legislation to minimize and inhibit the illicit, black market trade in cannabis.  Residents of the Northwest Territories said that to do this, government needs to make cannabis cheap and plentiful.  The failure to do so, whether out of a misguided morality that still feels cannabis is taboo, or by a motivation to control the revenues that cannabis sales will generate, a tight rein on the sale of cannabis will only serve to promote and support the existing illicit cannabis trade.  That’s why it is vitally important to get this legislation right from the outset.  The Colorado experience demonstrates that once the legislation is up and running, there are certain “genies” that you can’t put back in the bottle.  I believe that the Liquor Commission model, which will see cannabis retailing only in a maximum of 7 existing liquor stores in 6 communities, is one of those genies…it will never be put back in the bottle!

The joint Committees heard broad support for private sector cannabis stores, and the potential entrepreneurial and job opportunities that will come with them, especially in our smaller communities where every job is desperately needed.  This reflects what I have heard, personally, from my constituents.  The people of Yellowknife North also want the opportunity to get into the retail cannabis sector at the ground floor…not 2 years from now when the Liquor Stores have solidified their hold on the market.  This was voiced strongly by the Yellowknife and NWT Chambers of Commerce when the joint Committees held their Yellowknife consultation.

The joint Committees noted that a regulatory framework for licensed establishments is outside the scope of the bill.  This is unfortunate.  It is also a demonstration of government’s short-sightedness in failing to look upon legalization as a potential economic opportunity for northerners as outlined in our Mandate.   I believe the bill should have provided for this type of establishment, which would provide a legal place for people to consume cannabis in a regulated setting, away from minors.   This may not be an opportunity that is of interest to all communities, but I can assure you there are business people here in the capital who would have welcomed the opportunity to explore this as a potential venture.  I remain hopeful that all Members, including Cabinet, give full consideration to this opportunity now as we debate this bill and not two years from now when the trenches will have been dug so deep we can’t get out.

Today, I understand that the Committee Chairs will be moving 7 substantive motions related to policy recommendations on Bill 6.  I support these motions, which, among other things, would require the GNWT to develop a fully costed plan for the implementation of Bill 6, to form an interdepartmental working group to prepare for the future regulation of cannabis-based and high-potency products, and licensed establishments for cannabis consumption, and which would require the GNWT to develop economic development programming to support northern entrepreneurship related to cannabis sales and production.  This is the kind of comprehensive policy planning and development that northern residents need and deserve as the country moves closer to legalization.

Those are my comments.

Thank-you Mr. Chair.

 

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