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NSLC monopoly on cannabis sales a bad idea, says former NDP finance minister

Marijuana
Marijuana

OTTAWA BUREAU

The former minister responsible for the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. is warning against handing over control of the sale of pot to the Crown enterprise.

Graham Steele, who served in the Dexter government, told The Chronicle Herald he thinks allowing the NSLC essentially a monopoly on cannabis sales, as other provinces have done, would be a mistake.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to take an organization that does what it does, and does in my opinion really well, and just say, ‘Here, and here’s a brand new thing with which you have no previous experience, now you go ahead and do it,’” he said.

Steele said he understands the need for a sufficient regulatory framework but it’s time for government to step back, especially with so many other issues from education to health care on its plate.

Instead, Steele said, the current dispensary-style storefronts that operate in a legal grey area should be able to apply for licences and, if approved, continue to sell product that meets regulations.

“Why not let the private sector show what it can do?” Steele said.

Ottawa will legalize pot by July 2018 but has left it up to the individual provinces to design their own distribution frameworks. Many provinces have already laid out their plans; some, like Ontario and New Brunswick, are opting to offer government-run stores through their liquor corporations. Others, such as Alberta, will allow private pot shops to operate under provincial regulations. Hybrid models are another possible option.

Nova Scotia has yet to announce how it plans to distribute cannabis. The McNeil government recently completed public consultations on legalization and has said it will announce its plans by the end of 2017. “I think they’re going to lean toward selling it through the NSLC or through a subsidiary of the NSLC just because there’s a lot of people, frankly, in all parties who just say, ‘Yup, the government will do it,’” Steele said.

Former Nova Scotia premier Darrell Dexter, who now lobbies for the cannabis industry via Global Public Affairs, did not want to speculate on which direction the current government will take, but he said if it fashions cannabis distribution after its liquor distribution, Nova Scotians will likely see a hybrid model.

He pointed out that while most alcohol is sold by the NSLC, wine, liquor and beer sales are allowed through craft wineries, distilleries and breweries at the point of production. There are also several boutique retail outlets allowed to sell alcohol products.

Proposed federal regulations released Tuesday opened the door for small, craft producers within larger provincial frameworks.

Dexter didn’t offer an opinion on which distribution model he thinks would be best for the province but did caution that a purely government-run industry may be costly.

“Both (models) have their pros and cons but there’s no question if you go with a pure government monopoly, investment costs are going to be very high and it would be many, many years before the government would recover the investment necessary in order do that,” he said.

 “In Nova Scotia, there are somewhere around 135 liquor outlets, about one in every 7,000 people, and we understood that to be access that dealt a pretty much fatal blow to any illegal alcohol market,” Dexter said.

The NSLC could not be reached for comment.

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