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Proposed pot rules break new ground

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TORONTO—Ontario is the first province out of the gate with a detailed plan to sell and distribute recreational marijuana when Ottawa legalizes it next summer.

The Liberal government announced Friday that it will sell marijuana in as many as 150 dedicated stores run by the province's liquor control board.

Those looking to purchase marijuana when it becomes legal across the country will be subject to the same age and usage restrictions currently in place for alcohol, said Attorney General Yasir Naqvi.

The process of purchasing recreational cannabis will mimic closely the one currently in place at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Naqvi said residents 19 or older will be able to purchase marijuana at separate retail outlets or through a website run by the LCBO that should be ready for business by next July.

Consumption of legal weed will not be allowed in public spaces or workplaces, and should be confined to private residences, Naqvi said.

However, he noted the government will explore the possibility of allowing marijuana-licensed establishments in the future.

The province expects to have all the stores operational across the province by 2020, with the first 40 opening next summer.

Those stores only will sell marijuana and not alcohol.

The federal government introduced legislation in April with a goal of legalizing and regulating the use of recreational pot by July 1, 2018, but left it up to individual provinces to design their own distribution system and usage regulations.

Ontario has jumped ahead of most other provinces and territories, many of which either are in the early stages of crafting their legalization frameworks or have just started public consultations.

Back in July, Canada's premiers told the federal government they needed more time to get their rules in place before Ottawa went ahead with the marijuana legalization.

They asked for clarification around road safety and enforcement, preparation and training on distribution, taxation, public education, and the impact legalization might have on the black market.

Despite the concerns, Ontario is moving ahead and Naqvi said the time-tested model at the LCBO made sense as a blueprint for cannabis in the province.

One of the government's priorities, he noted, involves clamping down on illegal distribution channels.

He made it clear that will include dispensaries that have cropped up in recent months in anticipation of widespread legalization.

“Illicit cannabis dispensaries are not legal now and will not be legal retailers under the new model,” Naqvi stressed.

“. . . These pot dispensaries are illegal and will be shut down," he warned. "If you operate one of these facilities, consider yourself on notice.”

Naqvi said setting the minimum purchasing age at 19 is intended to protect youth from potential drug use.

The new regulations, however, also will contain language allowing police to confiscate small amounts of pot from those under 19 without incurring criminal charges.

Asked about expected revenues, Finance minister Charles Sousa could provide no estimates, saying market conditions and federal tax levels will impact the bottom line and are unclear.

“Frankly, this is uncharted territory and we're going to have to monitor it and see how it develops,” Sousa conceded.

He noted the government has been working on the pot file for about a year.

“We are running out of time," Sousa said. "We have to be prepared by next year.”

Cannabis activist Jodie Emery, meanwhile, predicted Ontario's plan will limit the supply of marijuana in the province and will contribute to the growth of the black market.

“I've been worried from the beginning that the so-called legalization is nothing more that Prohibition 2.0 with cops and politicians looking to make money themselves,” she charged.

Sousa could not say what the start-up costs for the stores will be but expects they will be recovered over time.

He said legislation regulating the control of marijuana will be introduced in the fall.

Ontario's opposition parties both panned the government plan.

Progressive Conservative community safety critic Laurie Scott said the government must have strong measures to crack down on drug-impaired driving and to address concerns raised by public health officials.

NDP attorney general critic Gilles Bisson said the government has failed to deliver a comprehensive plan for safe marijuana distribution.

“Now, we're left to ask if the number of locations is correct, where they'll be located, how communities will be involved in the decision process, and how pot products will be priced and taxed,” he noted.

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