VICTORIA, British Columbia—As Canada marches toward federally legal recreational cannabis, one of the most compelling unknowns is what kinds of stores will eventually sell the marijuana.
Some Canadians are already envisioning a future in which a quick stop at the liquor store could net a bottle of wine for dinner, a six pack for the weekend, and a couple eighths of BC Bud.
While most of the legal world has opted to sell retail weed in pot-specific storefronts, aka dispensaries and pot shops, British Columbia and other provinces are being urged by liquor store owners to sell marijuana inside existing liquor stores.
The idea of pot sales in liquor stores isn’t completely foreign. The mayor of Philadelphia floated such a scenario for Pennsylvania, and liquor store owners in Massachusetts were also pushing for the opportunity to retail cannabis. But no such system has ever been implemented.
“On the for side, it’s a good money saver, and we have similar structures in place—things like Serving it Right, a responsible service program that workers have to go through to be a server or someone who sells liquor,” marijuana executive Clayton Chessa told me during a recent conference in Victoria, British Columbia’s stately capital.
“They also have the distribution networks and channels as well as safeguards and security in place to make sure controlled substances aren’t sold to minors.”
But the government’s cannabis task force is against the co-located sales because “the potential for increasing rates of use and co-use run counter to the public health objectives of harm reduction and prevention,” and also because researchers have raised concerns about the co-use of cannabis and alcohol, saying it can increase overall intoxication.
Many Canadians already working in the cannabis industry also oppose the co-located sales. Sitting inside cozy 420-friendly consumption lounge The Green Ceiling in Victoria, owner Ashley Abraham and her friend Nicole Little questioned the alcohol industry groups’ motives and arguments.
“I think it’s a ludicrous attempt by the powers that be to grab a hold of a market that they’ve actively lobbied against for years,” Abraham said.
Added Little, who manages the neighboring Skunk & Panda Shatter Shack inside the Great Canadian Canna Mall: “Why are these liquor store employees more capable of checking IDs than we are? I don’t see how sending cannabis users into a liquor store is considered compassionate access.”
Even though Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his administration are moving confidently forward with their intent to legalize, there are still many unknowns.
“What the provinces are going to do with these retail cannabis sales is a big question mark,” said Chessa, general manager of operations at Vancouver-based Abattis Bioceuticals Corp, a publicly traded company that runs Health Canada-certified cannabis testing facility Northern Vine Labs. “If they’ve got enough money and the liquor industry can lobby properly, anything’s possible, as we’ve already seen in different industries across the world.”
But given British Columbia’s role as the epicenter of cannabis in Canada, the battle is particularly complex in this West Coast province.
“Trudeau’s fundamental goal is to legalize, regulate, and control this substance,” said Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, aka ABLE BC.
“Legalizing it is his job, and he’s doing that, but regulating and controlling it are boxes we can check pretty easily.”
ABLE BC is one of the primary groups behind the push in British Columbia to sell adult-use pot in liquor stores.
“We think that by using the existing liquor store model, the government is going to be able to offer an efficient, consumer-friendly environment where you have experienced, responsible, and formative staff with expertise in selling controlled substances handling these transactions,” Guignard said.
The multiple organizations lobbying on behalf of the effort say it would save time and money.
“Our most important factors are public safety and responsible usage,” said Stephanie Smith, president of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union, “but we also know that setting up a secondary distribution system and additional levels of oversight and regulation would be extremely costly for British Columbia citizens.
“(Our liquor stores) are age-controlled environments, and the staff in our liquor stores are heavily monitored to ensure they do appropriate ID checks… We see it as a perfect fit.”
The proposed measure is hardly a slam dunk in any province. Former British Columbia Premier Christy Clark came out against the proposal.
“Should (retail cannabis) be co-located to liquor stores? I don’t think so,” Clark said in April. “No one does that in the United States, and you don’t want these two intoxicants sitting beside each other on the shelf.”
But as new British Columbia Premier John Horgan supports the sale of recreational cannabis at liquor stores, the province’s thriving cannabis industry seems solidified against the proposal.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” said Brandon Wright, sitting in the bustling kitchen at Victoria-based Baked Edibles. “BC is so pro-dispensary that I’d have a tough time imagining a model where dispensaries didn’t exist here.”
As two of Wright’s colleagues baked and packaged the brand’s edibles among fragrant mobile pan racks and a modified Canadian flag overhead—sporting a cannabis leaf in place of the more familiar maple leaf—Wright talked on the region’s singular connection to the plant at the center of this now-national debate.
“The lobbyists will have a very difficult time with this in BC,” said Wright, Baked’s general manager. “They’ll have an easier time in other provinces that don’t have such a rich history in cannabis.”
Kyle Cheyne, who employs more than 100 people at his five cannabis dispensaries and three consumption lounges on Vancouver Island, agrees that such a proposal will be a tough sell in British Columbia.
“When it comes to BC, I don’t think we’ll ever in the history of mankind see liquor stores selling marijuana, because it’s very wrong and it doesn’t belong there,” Cheyne, whose shops operate under the Leaf Compassion banner, said while chilling in his newly opened Terp City consumption lounge on Douglas Street, central Victoria’s main drag. “I could see the liquor stores selling cannabis in Alberta, but that’s also where we’ll see the crazy stories about drinking and driving or getting stoned and driving.
“But it’s never happening here.”
Of course not all locals here think British Columbia is off limits for weed sales in liquor stores. Jay Ryan owns Buffy’s Pub and Liquor Store in Sooke, an hour west of Victoria, and he’s actively pushing to be able to sell adult-use cannabis in his bottle shop.
“You already have a distribution chain in place and a set of stores that have been background checked and authorized to sell a controlled substance,” said Ryan, adding that the cannabis sales could take place in a different room, away from the alcohol transactions.
“Having to reinvent the wheel just seems to be a waste of time and money.
“Of course, I’m a little biased on the subject.”