Nunavut wrestles 'big challenges' regulating pot before 2018 legalization

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Prime minister's point person on marijuana file in Yellowknife for town hall

Prime minister's point person on marijuana file in Yellowknife for town hall

Nunavut faces some unique challenges in responding to the federal government's announcement that Canada will have a legal weed market as of July 1, 2018.

Many of the territory's communities are remote with a high percentage of young people and no place to buy alcohol.

So unlike what some provinces might be thinking, the territory will not be able to piggyback pot sales directly off the alcohol sales framework.

Both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have to consider what having communities that prohibit alcohol means for marijuana sales, according to Stephen Mansell, the director of policy and planning for the Nunavut Justice department.

To work through these "big challenges," he says the territorial government has put together an interdepartmental working group. 

The group includes members from the departments of Justice, Health, Family Services, Finance, and Economic Development and Transportation.

They will be responsible for sorting out the decisions the federal government left to the provinces and territories in the bill the Liberal government introduced earlier this month.

Who can buy it?

For example, while the Canadian government will mandate that marijuana is not sold to youth under 18, it's up to the territory if it wants to raise the age limit.

"There's a lot of study and review that marijuana for developing minds can cause damage, and some experts say 25 is actually the right age considering the health effects," said Mansell.

However, the legal drinking age in Nunavut is 19, which Mansell says will be a big factor in the territory's considerations.

Restrictions first, then sales

Mansell says it's too early for the government to be leaning one way or another on setting an age limit or a method of sale.

"We understand that there's a timeframe and it's pressing, so it's become a pretty big priority, but right now we're in very early stages of determining the best model for sale restrictions in Nunavut."

The territory is considering taking the approach of a two-part rollout of marijuana legislation in order to meet the 2018 deadline.

If it does, the first bill would deal with restrictions, so that legal marijuana doesn't land in a legislative vacuum at the territorial level on July 1, 2018.

The working group will review restrictions on smoking in public and ones that reach farther than the federal prohibition on driving high or with weed in the car, says Mansell.

It will also plan a public awareness campaign that will focus on "young people and developing minds."

If they use the two-part rollout, legislation dictating terms of sale would be developed — after safety concerns are addressed.

MLA Paul Okalik said he needed more details before he could comment on rollout, but he would be "happy" with plans if they adequately responded to addiction treatment needs. 

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The answers to who can sell it and for how much may have to wait until after Canada Day 2018, once the government has settled on restrictions.

To help determine how that will come about, Nunavut will ask for input from its residents.

"I can say for sure that the Government of Nunavut will be reaching out to the public on this issue," Mansell said.  

"Anything we do will have to take into account the views and opinions that we hear from Nunavummiut."