The head of a Canadian liquor control board has just become an unlikely ally in the argument against letting liquor stores sell marijuana exclusively in the country.
Ever since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to legalize cannabis nationwide, politicians including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger have called on the government to hand the marijuana market over to provincially-run liquor stores. They argue that those stores are the best bet to fulfill Trudeau's promise to maintain public safety and keep cannabis away from kids.
But John Stinson - CEO of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries - disagrees. He recently visited Colorado to study the marijuana market. And what he saw (and smelled) in the legal dispensaries convinced him that liquor stores - including the chain of Manitoba Liquor Marts that he oversees - shouldn't sell marijuana.
Stinson told CBC that specialized stores in Colorado do an excellent job of restricting access.
"I was encouraged that there could be a retail model for recreational marijuana that keeps younger people safe, that allows us to control age access in a very deliberate way," said Stinson."I think we need to take it very slowly, but I think we could get there."
He was particularly impressed with the controlled entrance, the vigilance of clerks checking IDs and dispensing advice on responsible consumption, and the general appearance of the retail stores. "It didn't feel like you were in a scary place in a shady alley buying some weed," he said.
Beyond the issue of public safety, Stinson thinks that spirits and strains should be sold in separate locations because the culture of marijuana is different from that of alcohol.
"There may be some crossover, but liquor is woven into our social fabric in a very different way than I think recreational marijuana is at this point."
And he thinks that people shopping for spirits might literally turn up their noses at marijuana.
Liquor store customers don't want to smell like marijuana
"I think it would be difficult to have it displayed next to a bottle of vodka, because everyone coming in to buy a bottle of vodka is going to leave the store smelling like marijuana, and perhaps they don't want to smell like marijuana."
Stinson's remarks appear to contradict yesterday's news that Brian Harriman - President and CEO of New Brunswick's NB Liquor - was preparing the provinces and territories to begin selling marijuana in liquor stores.
However, that might not be the case. In response to the news from New Brunswick, Denis Arsenault - CEO of the licensed medical marijuana producer OrganiGram, located in Moncton N.B. - told the Telegraph-Journal that, "putting liquor agencies in charge of pot sales doesn't necessarily mean pot will be sold in liquor stores."
It's possible that the liquor control boards will simply oversee the regulation, distribution and taxation of marijuana. Many precedents for that system exist in America: alcohol and marijuana are regulated by the same boards in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska. So the head of NB Liquor may actually be readying the other provinces to oversee regulation and taxation, not retail sales.
If so, it appears that the haze over where recreational marijuana will be sold is beginning to clear.