It’s a summer Friday night. You get off work, mind spinning from a complicated week at the office, unlock your bicycle and start down Franklin Avenue. You’re ready for a chill weekend. A beer while you barbecue might be nice, so you veer off Franklin to the downtown liquor store, walk in, and – oh yeah, there’s the new weed counter. No jars of green buds sit upon it, but a menu reads: “OG Kush, Blueberry Dream, Sour Diesel…” You look around to see if anyone from work is in the store and, scot free, head to the counter.
“Hi there, how can I help you?” the man behind the counter asks.
“Well, uh…” you stumble, looking at the menu of esoteric strains. “I haven’t really tried pot since high school.”
“What kind of effects are you looking for?”
“Nothing too strong. Just looking to have a relaxed weekend.”
“I think I know the right stuff. How much do you want?”
“Just a taste.”
He squats out of sight, you hear some rustling, and back up he comes with a little package marked Pink Kush – 1g. He rings you through (hey, it’s cheaper than it was in high school!) and as you turn around, your shirt soaks through with sweat before you even make eye contact with your boss, the deputy minister, across the store. Your eyes lock, then you both turn your gaze to the bag of weed. She walks towards you and you freeze, almost wincing. With a grin, she whisks past to the counter.
As you unlock your bike from the railing in front of the store, an underage skateboarder asks you to grab a quarter- ounce of Kush for him and you tell him to scram.
At some point this summer, likely July or August, cannabis will be legal and a scenario like this could play out in Yellowknife. It’s a massive cultural shift for the North and Canada, which will open the doors to new perceptions of drug use beyond the criminal narrative of the War on Drugs. Legalization will allow for better study of the drug’s effects, both positive and negative. It will lessen strain on our police and drive new revenue into government coffers. But first, it has to be cheaper and easier to buy legally than it is to call up your old high-school buddy from Sir John and take a little drive.
People living in parts of British Columbia and Ontario have had semi-legal and illegal-but-brazen cannabis dispensaries for years now, but storefront shopping is new to Yellowknife. Cannabis will be sold, first, through existing liquor stores, all of which are run through contracts with the GNWT. It will also be sold and distributed online through the NWT Liquor Commission. Retail staff will be trained to know what they’re selling, which will mostly be the buds of the plant itself at first. The federal government is developing legislation for legal sale of edibles and concentrates and then territories and provinces will follow, likely a year after cannabis is legalized.
On April 5, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce slammed the NWT government’s plans for a publicly run sales model in a press release. “The proposed retail model runs counter to basic principles of fair competition and economic diversification,” stated chamber president Mike Lalonde. “We’re asking for an open and transparent process that provides entrepreneurs with an opportunity to demonstrate that they can operate at whatever standards are set by the territorial government.”
Sara Murphy, owner of Harley’s Hard Rock Saloon, has been the public face of this dismay. In looking to expand her business, which already has had some success with merchandise sales and tattoo artistry, Murphy was hoping to get into the cannabis sales trade. When the GNWT’s plan came out, she told CBC North she found the move hypocritical – retail liquor stores, while publicly-licensed, controlled and supplied, are run by local businesses who stand to profit.
Likewise, some Indigenous leaders complained the liquor retail model won’t work in their communities, many of which don’t have liquor stores. They want more control over the substance, similar to their control over alcohol. Chiefs in the Sahtu region have said they feel like they’re being cut out of a potential new source of revenue. Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart stood up in the legislative assembly last fall and told cabinet members their plan was leaving out northern entrepreneurs. While, as with most things in public policy, it’s hard to foresee big changes happening without public pressure, these fears might be overblown.
The GNWT’s refrain has been that the door for private sales is being left open. According to the GNWT’s legal cannabis explainer, The Way Forward, “There will be nothing in the legislation that prevents the future sale of cannabis in ‘cannabis only’ stores. However, given the timeline imposed by the federal government, the GNWT’s priority is to ensure that there is an established and reliable system to sell cannabis in place by July 2018.” Indeed, Testart, who joined MLAs on a whirlwind cannabis consultation tour of 11 communities in April, said they’ll be proposing an amendment to loosen the regulation around private cannabis retailers, which in the current legislation would only be allowed on a case-by-case basis with approval from the minister of finance.
Along with the local business boosters and government skeptics, one of Canada’s few recognized cannabis experts believes a government-run sales system can’t compete with the already established black market, especially in online sales.
“We’ve got a massive black market on cannabis that is very prevalent that sells cannabis online,” says Deepak Anand, vice president of business and development for Cannabis Compliance, which bills itself as the world’s largest consulting firm on cannabis regulation. “I mean, it’s very easy for you to go on Google and just say, ‘cannabis online,’ and you’ll come up with a million sites that will deliver cannabis the next day, literally.” (Maybe within the week in the territories.)
“I think we tend to underestimate the online piece because we sort of compare [cannabis] to alcohol, and in this country we don’t have a big alcohol distribution system online.”
These sites are a perfect case study for the legal cannabis market. They have everything – cannabis extracts, moisturizing creams, gourmet ingredients, THC-infused candies, hash, pen-shaped disposable vaporizers. The product has been developed, experimented with, marketed and popularized already, all within the black market by a variety of actual brands competing against each other to come up with a more saleable product.
To truly undercut the illegal trade, these established sales need to be built upon and replicated with legitimate businesses, and the best products need to be made available through legal avenues that are more affordable and convenient than the illegal avenues.
“I just think that the private industry is going to have a more practical approach around things and have a better understanding of why people are either going online or walking into a storefront outlet,” says Anand, who participated with the federal legalization task force. “Remember, dispensaries have been prevalent in Canada for quite some time now and there’s a reason why people choose to go to the dispensary and access cannabis. So, I think trying to displace that market with a new legal market is going to have some nuances which the private industry gets better than, in my opinion, the government.”
The GNWT’s responsibilities around buying legal weed end at procurement and distribution. If northerners want to get into the production side of things, they’re going to have to go to the federal government for a license. Justice Minister Louis Sebert said in April that no one in the NWT had been approved for one of those licenses at that time.
Federally-licensed suppliers are operating under the same regulations as medical marijuana suppliers. These businesses are, as Anand calls them, “seed to sale” services – “Everything from harvesting the crop to curing and drying it, trimming it, processing and packaging and shipping.” But even if the GNWT doesn’t allow private operators to sell in the near future – and while the door is open, as of press time no one has made any promises on whether that would happen – there will be local economic opportunities.
“The [government-operated outlets] are going to have to hire a lot of staff regardless of whether they do it or they let the private industry do it,” says Anand.
While prices have not yet been set, Statistics Canada collected anonymous, crowdsourced data earlier this year that pegged a range of prices on the illegal market of less than $10 per gram. (Anecdotally, it’s been twice as much in Yellowknife, and up to four times more in remote communities.) To undercut that market, legal cannabis will have to be cheaper than illegal cannabis. The GNWT itself does not have a supplier yet, nor targets for supply and demand, but it doesn’t anticipate bringing in more than $1 million in tax revenue in legal pot’s first year. Whether that will cover the expenses of setting up the infrastructure, training staff and introducing new enforcement strategies, is all yet to be seen.
On April 20 – 4/20, the world’s unofficial day of cannabis celebration – ministers and public officials held a public meeting in Yellowknife to discuss the finer points of the NWT’s legalization regime. (Only one pun was made on “hashing out” the regulations in the act.) One thing nobody could put a fine point on is how impairment at workplaces or by police in roadside checks, will be measured. Neither officials with the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission nor the Department of Transportation could answer with exactitude Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely’s questions on how new impairment offences – especially criminal offences for impaired driving – will be enforced if there is no metric, like the blood alcohol limit for alcohol.
Judy Kainz, with the WSCC, said that impairment in the workplace comes down to being “fit for work” and that “it’s not as easy as putting a level to it” but they’re looking at developing tools to do so.
Meagan Birch, with the GNWT’s transportation division, says the government is looking at both tests for cannabis in people’s systems as well as field sobriety tests and possibly having “drug recognition experts” involved to determine impairment.
Last year, the national Human Resources Professionals Association put out a report titled Clearing the Haze: The Impacts of Marijuana in the Workplace, which concluded that “current drug testing cannot sufficiently determine the extent of cannabis impairment. Until a reliable form of impairment testing is available, employers will have to continuously revisit their drug testing policies.” At the meeting, McNeely was left without solid parameters for what impairment means, and it’s likely the government, and governments across Canada, are scrambling to figure this out before cannabis is legal.
One of the larger concerns, both nationally and within the territory, is the effects cannabis can have on individuals, beyond just getting them high. JAMA Psychiatry published a meta-analysis in April looking at overall trends in long-term effects of cannabis use on cognitive function in youth under 25 years of age. It found associations between cannabis use and cognitive function in youth to be low, and to disappear after 72 hours, but did not look at other outcomes, such as psychosis.
The Indian Journal of Psychiatry released a study specifically looking into this. It states that cannabis is a known risk factor for schizophrenia, but the neurobiological processes behind that aren’t known. A cause-and-effect relationship hasn’t been established; it’s unclear if cannabis can cause schizophrenia or whether it exacerbates pre-existing conditions.
One certain effect of legalization will be to lift a massive barrier to studying all aspects of cannabis. No doubt there will be major emphasis on studying the health impacts on youth in particular. As Minister Sebert stated on 4/20, what we’ve been trying for the last 100 years hasn’t kept cannabis out of youth’s hands. Rather, it’s turned cannabis-users into criminals.
Beyond that, no one really knows what’s going to happen post pot legalization, but we may at least begin to understand why everyone from a deputy minister to a young skateboarder can sometimes be drawn to alter their perception as a pastime.
FAQs on NWT’s pot policy
Where you can smoke?
The rules are much the same as tobacco: Residents will also be allowed to smoke cannabis on trails, highways, roads, and streets, and in parks when not in use for a public event, unless municipal governments make bylaws that expand the areas where the smoking of cannabis is prohibited. Residential property owners, including the owners of residential rental properties, have authority to make their properties smoke free.
Residents aged 19 and up can have a maximum of 30 grams of cannabis on them in public (that’s also the most they can buy at once from a store). As of April 20, the GNWT was not considering having any limit on how much a resident can have at home – though large amounts might arouse trafficking suspicions. Youth caught with pot may be fined.
Communities that want to prohibit pot have to do it quickly, because once cannabis sales contracts have been worked out with liquor stores (or others eventually), a plebiscite becomes out of the question. Either band councils or municipal councils can appeal to the Justice Minister to set up a plebiscite in which their communities can vote on whether to allow cannabis.
Primer on pot
There are two main kinds of pot. Sativa strains produce energetic, cerebral highs, and indica strains are more sluggish, body highs (think in-da-couch). The chemical composition of the buds determines their effect. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) causes the most prominent effects of the high, and, medically, has been shown to relieve effects of nausea and pain. Cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating compound but is associated with alleviating pain, inflammation and anxiety.