BALDREY: Pot to dominate spring session in Victoria

There is a runaway freight train barrelling down the track at all provincial governments, and the young B.C. NDP government is no exception to its impact.

I’m referring to the looming legalization of recreational marijuana, which will create a hornet’s nest of problems at the provincial government level.

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The federal government will be responsible for overseeing production and quality control, but the provinces will have to regulate drug distribution, the retail model and enforcement of the law, which are far more onerous tasks than those faced by Ottawa.

B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who has responsibility for the legalization file in government, says everyone is severely underestimating the huge challenges that legalization presents. And exacerbating the situation is the fact that July 1 is when recreational use becomes legal, leaving provinces less than eight months to put a system in place.

Farnworth tells me the onerous legislated framework on this issue will likely elbow all but a host of other kinds of legislation off the order paper during next spring’s critical legislature session, the first one to include an NDP budget.

“I’m telling everyone the next session will be the budget and cannabis session, and that’s about it,” he told me last week. “There won’t be much time leftover for anything else.”

No less than 18 separate pieces of existing legislation have to be amended, and in some instances those necessary amendments are voluminous and complicated. Not only will they require a lot of time for debate in the legislature, but these amendments are going to keep the government’s legislation drafting team tied up for months.

Everything from the Motor Vehicle Act (which will likely include administrative penalties for drug-impaired driving) to the Residential Tenancy Act (which will deal with tenants’ and landlords’ rights when it comes to marijuana use on rented properties) to various municipal-related and justice and corrections’ laws will have to be amended.

Farnworth says the distribution model has not been decided upon yet, but he hopes to have one in place by the end of the year after more public consultation. The level of public interest in this issue can be gauged by the number of written submissions the government received via a public consultation process: a staggering 49,000 of them.

Who will sell marijuana and how is a key issue. It could be through government liquor stores, or through private outlets, or through a mixture of the two, or some other model.

Another big question is whether all municipalities will agree to have marijuana-dispensing facilities within their boundaries. Already, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie has said his municipality will be saying “no” to such drug outlets.

Farnworth told me it is conceivable B.C. could have the equivalent of so-called “dry counties” that exist in the United States, in which some counties ban the sale of alcohol. In any event, the Community Charter and the Vancouver Charter will be amended to address municipal concerns.

And although the federal government will be responsible for production, Farnworth is concerned there may not be enough production licences granted to B.C., where growing the crop known as “B.C. Bud” is already literally a much bigger deal than in other provinces.

Farnworth says he may push Ottawa for special recognition of B.C.’s unique, existing position in the marijuana business to grant this province more production facilities, potentially in such traditional marijuana-growing areas as the Kootenays and the Gulf Islands.

His request for special recognition may be tied to an inevitable argument provinces are about to have with Ottawa’s plan to slap an excise tax on marijuana sales, and split the revenue 50/50 with the provinces (which want a greater slice of the pie, since they have more responsibilities).

Finally, there may be an unintended consequence of this looming quagmire: the NDP’s ambitious agenda of change may be delayed on a number of fronts, especially if a form of legislated change is required.

In fact, it looks like pot is going to crowd a bunch of other issues off the table for a while – a scenario not even remotely considered in last May’s election campaign. That runaway train is about to hit with a wallop.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca

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