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Calgary debates where and how to sell cannabis, eyes liquor-store model as template

In a report, city staff argue that Calgary, where illegal pot shops are being shut down by police, should ask the provincial government to develop a privatized system of cannabis stores.

Rich Pedroncelli/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

Calgary city staff are recommending that Alberta set up a private retail system for recreational-cannabis sales, similar to its liquor stores, once the drug becomes legal next summer.

Council is set to debate this and other recommendations on cannabis legalization Monday as municipalities across the country begin grappling with the nuts and bolts of regulating a drug that Canadians have largely been prohibited from buying and selling for almost a century.

In a report, staff argue that Calgary, where illegal pot shops are being shut down by police, should ask the provincial government to develop a privatized system of cannabis stores.

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"The current method of regulating retail alcohol sales allows for discretion in a variety of areas, including the location of businesses and operating hours," the report states.

While such a privatized system would fit best into the existing municipal regulatory framework, the city would need a significant amount of provincial or federal sales taxes on the drug to offset the strain of overseeing the new industry, according to the report.

The report also states that further public consultation is needed before the city decides whether to support asking the province to set the minimum age for cannabis at 18, which is when young people can buy tobacco and alcohol in Alberta.

As well, staff are recommending the city canvass Calgarians about whether they want licensed venues for the legal consumption of cannabis, such as vapour lounges. If the province allows these businesses, they could be regulated in the same way as bars, the report states.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi was unavailable for comment Sunday, but earlier this year he said his city will be well-prepared for the eventual sale of legal cannabis, noting Vancouver and Toronto were caught flatfooted when their illegal-dispensary sectors exploded.

"It became a very big problem for those city councils and, frankly, one they weren't prepared for," he told reporters in February.

As legalization looms, Toronto has cracked down on the retail sale of cannabis while Vancouver and other communities in British Columbia have licensed dispensaries, arguing that their bylaws can be easily modified once the federal and provincial governments unveil new rules.

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Calgary must submit its feedback to Alberta by the end of this month, as part of the province's continuing consultation with stakeholders and the public as it crafts a draft set of rules for the drug expected to be released this fall.

In April, Kathleen Ganley, Alberta's Justice Minister and Solicitor-General, said it is unlikely Albertans will be able to purchase cannabis and alcohol at the same shop, which is an idea previously floated by politicians in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario.

The federal task-force report guiding Ottawa's legalization of cannabis recommended against selling the drug in liquor stores, stating concerns that mixing alcohol and marijuana leads to higher levels of intoxication. Pharmacies or private shops, such as dispensaries that are currently illegal under federal drug laws, are also possible venues, experts say.

To date, the federal government has indicated that it will leave the contentious issues of regulating the wholesale distribution and retailing of cannabis up to the provinces and territories, a move that industry insiders and academics have predicted could hamper the uniform rollout of legalization across all jurisdictions.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his government's commitment to legalizing cannabis by July 1, 2018, despite the country's premiers saying they will only be able to meet that deadline if Ottawa gives the provinces guidance on five issues: road safety, distribution, taxation, public education and how sales of the legal drug might affect the black market.

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