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Alberta unveils plan for legalized marijuana, sets legal age at 18

The legalization of marijuana has been debated in Canadian politics since the 1970s and studied by task forces and committees for decades.

Joe Mahoney/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Alberta has joined in the rush by provinces to adapt to Canada's rapidly approaching marijuana legalization, with a draft plan that sets the minimum age at 18 and allows for public consumption in some areas. But the province is undecided on whether storefront sales will be managed by government monopoly or private interests.

The blueprint released Wednesday makes Alberta the third province, after Ontario and New Brunswick last month, to lay out some details of how cannabis will be sold and consumed as the federal government moves toward legalization by July, 2018. In keeping with the messaging from Ottawa and other provinces, the NDP government says it will work to prevent minors from getting their hands on marijuana, promote public health, keep drug-impaired drivers and workers off roads and job sites, and curb the illegal market.

However, the western province's plan is a clear demonstration of how different the rules between provinces will look.

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Read also: Trudeau's plan for marijuana tax catches premiers off guard

Alberta's detailed draft framework stands apart from what has been seen in New Brunswick, which announced that a Crown corporation will oversee the sale of non-medicinal cannabis with few other firm details. And Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley made a point Wednesday of mentioning that her province's plan differs from Ontario's in terms of where the drug can be consumed: Ontario proposes that recreational cannabis use be limited to private homes.

Alberta, in contrast, is suggesting that people be able to use recreational marijuana both at home or in public areas where smoking is already allowed. The province still plans to ban consumption at schools or hospitals, in vehicles, or in areas frequented by children. Cannabis use won't be allowed within five metres of playgrounds, spray parks and sports fields, for instance.

"We won't have specialized cannabis cafés and lounges right away. It's something we will revisit in the future, once the rules by the federal government for edible cannabis products are established," Ms. Ganley said.

Retail sales will be another point of difference among the provinces. Alberta has opened the door to the possibility of dozens of private stores stretching out across the province in the years ahead. But unlike Ontario and British Columbia, Alberta does not currently have a trove of private, technically illegal marijuana dispensaries.

Ontario says it will launch a monopoly of cannabis stores as a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a move that would put an end to private dispensaries. But in B.C., Premier John Horgan said this week that his province's numerous illegal dispensaries means it is already well-positioned to begin retail sales, and suggested a mixture of public and private sales is the likely outcome of a continuing consultation process.

In Alberta, Ms. Ganley insisted her government doesn't favour either the private model or a government model, and is waiting for public feedback. But she noted that a private model is the one Albertans are most familiar with, since the province closed its last Alberta Liquor Control Board store 23 years ago.

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No matter which model it lands on, Alberta says only specialized cannabis stores will be allowed to sell products – with no association with alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceuticals permitted. Unlike Ontario's plans, online sales are not a part of Alberta's initial plans.

In terms of the legal age for consumption, the provinces stand apart only because they already have different legal drinking ages. Like Ontario, Alberta is linking the minimum age for marijuana use to its drinking age.

"We are not encouraging use at 18, but that is generally the age at which we allow people to make adult decisions," Ms. Ganley said.

Some pieces of legislation to back up the policies could come as early as this fall. The province is asking for public feedback on the proposals by Oct. 27.

Other policies rolled out by Alberta Wednesday include setting the public possession limit at 30 grams – the equivalent of about 40 marijuana cigarettes – with a "zero-tolerance" policy for youth possession. The government is also suggesting that residents only be allowed to grow marijuana plants indoors.

Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver lawyer and cannabis advocate, praised Alberta for raising the possibility of private retailers participating in the recreational cannabis market – a development he says is better for entrepreneurs, the economy and consumers.

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"At least Alberta has provided an example of some flexibility and rationality in the way we approach these issues," Mr. Tousaw said.

"And it's also the first province that said explicitly, 'Look, people are going to need some place to consume this product – so we're not going to engage in this idea of banning consumption in all public spaces.'"

Trudeau proposes dollar-a-gram excise tax on legal marijuana (The Canadian Press)
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