Cannabis will become legal on October 17, but will the provinces be ready to sell it?

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OTTAWA — Mark your calendars: after 95 years, Canada’s prohibition on recreational cannabis will come to an end on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

But how many storefront retailers will actually open for business that day is just one of the many questions that remain, and over the next four months it will be largely up to the provinces and territories to produce the answers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the date in the House of Commons Wednesday, the day after the Cannabis Act passed its final vote in parliament. While the federal government had previously estimated eight to 12 weeks would be needed between passage of the bill and legalization, Trudeau said that timeline was too aggressive.

“We heard from provinces and territories who told us they needed more time to transition to this new framework,” he said.

“It is our hope that as of October 17, there will be a smooth operation of retail cannabis outlets operated by the provinces, with an online mail-delivery system operated by the provinces, that will ensure that this happens in an orderly fashion.”

There are an assortment of models in place as provinces prepare for the legal sale of cannabis. The western provinces will allow at least some private retailers to operate, while eastern provinces (including Ontario but excepting Newfoundland) are restricting sales to government-run stores.

Some provinces, however, are far ahead of others. Trina Fraser, a cannabis business specialist at Brazeau Seller Law, said New Brunswick is nearly ready to start stocking its store shelves, for example, while B.C. hasn’t even started accepting applications for licenses to operate private stores. Ontario has so far announced locations for only four of its government-run stores; the former Liberal government planned to have 40 open by year’s end, but with incoming premier Doug Ford having mused during the election campaign about opening sales to the private sector, plans in the country’s largest province could still change.

“There’s going to be a wide array of how quickly the retail storefronts actually roll out across the country,” Fraser said. At the very least, provinces will want to ensure they have online retailing ready to go in case there are few physical stores ready by the legalization date.

“Now that the bill is going to have royal assent, the provinces are going to have to step up and start giving more clarity about where they’re at,” she said. “They’re going to have to start answering some hard questions. They’ve kind of gotten a pass thus far because we haven’t had a federal framework finalized.”

The bill’s passage allows the government to finally publish the regulations that will govern the legal cannabis trade. Expected in the next week or two, they are keenly awaited by private operators as they will reveal the detailed rules for areas such as labelling and packaging, security clearances for employees and requirements for outdoor cultivation.

Meanwhile, the situation for home cultivation will remain muddy in Quebec, Manitoba and Nunavut, which have all banned home-grow despite the fact the federal legislation allows people to grow up to four plants at home. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told reporters Wednesday the federal government won’t initiate a challenge of those bans, leaving it up to residents of those provinces and territories to do so.

“There’s a law that was duly passed in Quebec and that’s the law of the province,” she said. “If individuals do not agree with that law then they can challenge that law.”

In Ottawa the big political question will now be the prospect of amnesty for those with previous marijuana-related criminal convictions, as even minor convictions can mean a Canadian is barred from entering the United States and other countries. Cabinet ministers have indicated pardons are being considered, but have not made any promises.

Trudeau said there’s “no point” in discussing it until the new laws are in place, a position echoed by Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief and MP who coordinates the marijuana file for the government.

“I believe that’s premature,” Blair said when asked Wednesday about the likelihood of pardons. “We have a responsibility to uphold the existing law and we are doing that. This is a nation based on the rule of law. That law is in effect and we will continue to uphold it until it is repealed and replaced.”

The federal government also still has work to do on the drug-impaired driving file. Bill C-46, which passed its final vote in the Senate on Wednesday evening, was introduced alongside the Cannabis Act and will allow police to use roadside screening devices to swab the saliva of drivers to check for marijuana.

But those devices are still being tested and will need to be approved by Wilson-Raybould before police forces can buy them. In the meantime, police will continue to use standardized sobriety exercises backed up by blood tests.

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