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  • Laura M Johnston

Cannabis in Canada - A Patchwork of Legislation

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Most Canadians find cannabis legislation in the provinces and territories confusing, contradictory, and downright baffling. Quebec, long a proponent of a legal drinking age at 18 years, recently raised its legal age for cannabis consumption to 21 years. Alberta has successfully managed to open over 300 retail stores to serve 4.37 million residents, whereas Ontario began with imposing a cap of 25 retail stores to serve 14.57 million residents.

Most jurisdictions deem personal home cultivation of four plants permissible but authorities in Manitoba will impose exorbitant fines. Most jurisdictions have also extended to municipalities an opt out clause as to whether they would permit retailers to operate within their boundaries. British Columbia has gone one step farther. It allows municipalities to set their own regulations on specifically where in the municipality retailers may locate.

The following is a current overview of the various legislative environments across the country. Naturally, this is subject to change as Cannabis 2.0 evolves.

Ontario passed Bill 174: Cannabis Act in July 2018. The act created the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) to control the distribution of cannabis. The OCS was initiated by the Wynn Liberals to oversee 40 government run, stand-alone stores to be located in key municipalities throughout the province. The Ford Conservatives changed this when elected in June 2018. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) was then set up to oversee cannabis retail in Ontario with a cap of 25 retail licenses across its five regions. Ontario alone failed to meet the federal October 17, 2018 deadline to open brick and mortar stores and instead deferred their opening deferred to April 1, 2019.

After a series of blunders in its management of the cannabis retail rollout, the Ford Conservatives have removed the cap on retail stores to be opened in the province. Significantly, several major municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area have chosen to opt out of having physical stores, including the cities of Mississauga and Markham.

Provincial legislation dictates that people years 19 and older are permitted to purchase and carry up to 130 grams on their person. Home cultivation of up to four plants is also permitted for personal use. Public consumption of cannabis is legal any place where tobacco consumption is legal, though this is being contested by several communities.

Ontario has banned vape products in convenience stores and gas stations, effective January 2020, but will continue to permit vape sales in specialty shops open to 19 years and older.

Quebec passed Bill n°157: Société québécoise du cannabis in June 2018, so that cannabis could be sold through a subsidiary of the provincially run Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ). Under the direction of the Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), Quebec has 22 stores in designated municipalities with the intention of adding up to 43 stores by March 1, 2020.

The SQDC controls online sales. Quebec enforces a zero-tolerance policy for driving under the influence and prohibits home cultivation for recreational use. In keeping with the province’s legal drinking age, Quebec permitted the sale of cannabis to persons of 18 years and older but raised its legal age to 21 years, effective January 1, 2020. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) elected in October 2018 has also banned consumption in indoor and outdoor public places and the sale of vapes in its retail stores. Significantly, it has also banned sales of edibles that it deems to appeal to anyone under the age of 21 years, including desserts, chocolates, and candy.

British Columbia passed Bill 31: Cannabis Distribution Act in April 2018. The BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) regulates cannabis supply and distribution and oversees retail sales in both public and privately owned stand-alone stores. There is no limit to the number of retail licenses that can be issued but municipalities have the right to determine the number and location of cannabis stores or whether to permit them at all. As of November 2019, British Columbia had 85 retail stores operating in the province. There is an eight-store limit on retailers operating in the province. British Columbia sets the age of consumption at 19 and permits home cultivation.

Alberta passed Bill 6: The Gaming and Liquor Statutes Amendment Act in April 2018. Cannabis in this province is regulated by the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC). The AGLC controls online sales but leaves over-the-counter sales to private operators. Private stores are required to be physically separate from stores that sell alcohol, tobacco, or pharmaceuticals and are not to sell anything but cannabis and cannabis-related products. The province issued 17 interim licenses to allow stores to stock inventory in advance of legalization and had intended to issue up to 250 licenses within the first 12 months of legalization. As of November 2019, this number had been extended to more than 300 licenses. No one company can own more than 15% of the total market share of cannabis retail in the province.

Alberta has set the age of consumption at 19, permits home cultivation, and, with the exception of motor vehicles and boats, will allow public consumption of cannabis wherever tobacco use is allowed.

Manitoba passed Bill 11: The Safe and Responsible Retailing of Cannabis Act in June 2018, renaming the Liquor & Lotteries Authority of Manitoba to the Liquor, Gaming & Cannabis Authority of Manitoba (LGCA). The LGCA regulates sales and has allowed municipalities to opt out of cannabis retail by referendum. It also selected consortiums Delta 9, National Access Cannabis, Tokyo Smoke, and Canopy Growth to run 40 retail outlets in the province with plans to open more outlets at a later date. National Access Cannabis, the fourth consortium, has partnered with five First Nations to build dispensaries on reserve lands across the province. Manitoba has committed to its residents that within two years of legalization, 90% of Manitobans will be able to access legal cannabis within a 30 minute drive from their homes.

Manitoba has set its legal age at 19, a year older than its legal age for drinking alcohol. It has also banned home cultivation, arguing that it places too much demand on enforcement authorities to monitor the number of plants per household. Home cultivators caught violating the ban are subject to a $2,542 fine.

Saskatchewan passed Bill 121: The Cannabis Control Act in May 2018. The bill provides the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) control over cannabis distribution and sales. The SLGA has issued 51 retail permits to private operators, including three to First Nations reserves. Five municipalities have held referendums and opted out of cannabis retail. Following Alberta’s free market approach, the province in October 2019 removed the cap on the number of retail stores permitted to operate.

Saskatchewan has set is legal age at 19 years and permits home cultivation. It has introduced strict laws to prohibit the possession of any amount of non-medicinal cannabis by a minor. Possession of more than 5 grams is subject to processes, penalties, and fines under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Nova Scotia passed Bill 108: Cannabis Control Act in April 2018. The bill allows the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) to offer cannabis products in eleven of its locations alongside of alcohol products. A previously closed NSLC location in the Halifax area has been reopened and sells cannabis products exclusively. After disappointing sales revenues in in the first and second quarters of 2019, Nova Scotia is now considering increasing its cap on retail stores.

The province has set the legal age at 19 years and permits home cultivation. Provincial penalties been established for youth possession up to five grams. Nova Scotia has also empowered landlords to ban smoking and cultivation in their rental space.

New Brunswick passed Bill 16: Cannabis Control Act in July 2018, granting control of cannabis distribution to Alcohol New Brunswick Liquor (ANBL). The ANBL opened 20 government owned stand-alone boutique centers equipped with wifi, a cafe appeal, and a selection of over 200 cannabis products. In spite of appearing to be well prepared for a cannabis rollout, the ANBL has since incurred revenue losses that the province considers unsustainable. Citing high legal prices unable to undercut the black market, supply issues, and restrictive Health Canada regulations, New Brunswick is in the process of privatizing its cannabis retail sector. An RFP to was closed on January 10 with a new private operator to be announced in the spring. New Brunswick has set the minimum age at 19 and requires users to cultivate their plants in secure quarters within their homes.

Prince Edward Island passed Bill 45: Cannabis Act in July 2018. The act granted authority to the province’s Liquor Control Commission (LCC) to run government owned, stand-alone retail outlets. The province has located four outlets around the island with the expectation that the one located in Charlottetown will generate 60% to 70% of total provincial sales. Prince Edward Island’s cannabis stores have been designed to be welcoming environments where customers are permitted to handle products as part of their shopping experience. The province has set its legal age at 19, allows home cultivation, and plans to legalize cannabis lounges at some future date.

Newfoundland and Labrador passed Bill 12: Act to Amend the Liquor Corporation Act in July 2018 to create Cannabis NL, a subsidiary of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation (NLC). Cannabis NL oversees a mix of public and private cannabis retail models divided into four categories based on the size and nature of the retail space. Of the 24 outlets, ten licenses have been issued to liquor stores attached to Loblaw-owned Dominion Stores Inc., and six to Canopy Growth. This has provoked a backlash from the province’s small business community, which accuses the province of favouring big business over its local entrepreneurs. Newfoundland and Labrador has set the legal age at 19 years, permits home cultivation, and limits cannabis consumption to private residences.

Yukon’s Cannabis Control and Regulation Act passed in April 2018. The act granted to the Yukon Liquor Corporation (YLC) control of cannabis distribution to private retailers. The territory has established a single retail site in Whitehorse with the intention of allowing a yet unspecified number of retailers in those municipalities willing to have them. Like Nova Scotia, landlords have the right to decide whether tenants can consume cannabis on their properties. Yukon allows home cultivation and has set the legal age of consumption at 19 years.

Northwest Territories Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Implementation Act passed in July 2018. It gives the NWT Liquor Commission (NWTLC) control over cannabis distribution and sales through the commission’s liquor outlets. The act contains provisions that will allow for the future sale of cannabis in separate retail stores. Northwest Territories has granted communities the choice to opt out of retail stores. “Dry” communities that prohibit drug use altogether have the right to advise online shipping centres not to send prohibited products. The Northwest Territories allow home cultivation and has set the legal age of consumption at 19 years.

Nunavut’s Bill 7: Cannabis Act took effect in June. Under the governance of its Liquor and Cannabis Commission (NLCC), the act will eventually allow retail stores, cannabis lounges, and other designated spaces for adults to consume cannabis products that are not smoked. Temporary event licenses will also be allowed. Nunavut prohibits home cultivation and has set the legal age of consumption at 19 years.

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