It’s only a matter of time before marijuana sales will be legalized in our country, and that means the Pallister government has some important decisions to make.
Last week, the Manitoba government tabled the Cannabis Harm Prevention Act. We are very pleased the government is talking about the legalization of marijuana and taking steps to ensure public safety is kept in the highest regard. The legislation is focused on ensuring Manitobans are not allowed to smoke marijuana in public places, indoors or in vehicles. As well, it addresses the issue of driving while being high. These are fundamental matters of public safety, but if the government truly wants to ensure social responsibly, it has to recognize the need to keep the sale of this controlled substance public.
Our members who work for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries are experts in the regulation and sale of liquor, a controlled substance, within a public system. Perhaps better than any of us, they understand that a publicly owned and operated system of marijuana sales and distribution, along with a robust regulatory environment, is the only way to keep public health at the forefront.
But they’re not alone.
Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (Canada) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health are both advocating for a publicly owned and operated system. And, it turns out Manitobans feel the same way. According to a recent Probe Research survey, roughly two out of every three Manitobans (65 per cent) think marijuana products should be sold through a government-owned and managed stores, similar to Liquor Marts.
To encourage a public debate about public health and safety, MGEU recently released a detailed policy paper, "The Public Advantage — Marijuana Legalization in Manitoba." Drawing on the extensive body of research about this subject, the position paper recommended that Manitoba choose a public model that ensures safe sales, an impaired driving strategy, improved treatment options, public education campaigns, good family-supporting jobs and quality service through stand-alone, publicly operated stores. Public, stand-alone stores will allow for marijuana to be sold separately from liquor, but still in a socially responsible manner by already well-trained staff who have the expertise in dealing with a controlled substance. We have presented our recommendations to the government caucus committee on the legalization of marijuana/cannabis, and in December, shared them with the ministers of justice, health and Crown corporations.
Under a system of stores owned and operated by the government, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to establishing a model and standards for safe sales. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries already has the existing capacity and expertise, with a proven track record of dealing with controlled substances in a socially responsible manner. Staff are already trained in how to deal with intoxicated people and ensuring products do not get into the hands of minors.
There is also a very solid economic argument in favour of the government controlling the sale of marijuana. Sales revenue will raise an estimated $25 million annually to help the government reduce the deficit without breaking its commitment to protect and improve public services.
In particular, the revenue from marijuana sales could provide real investment into underfunded addiction programs that help families and save lives. Or to fund public awareness campaigns and education programs to prevent "drugged driving," similar to campaigns centred around drunk driving or texting and driving.
When it comes down to it, how our province decides to sell marijuana will be determined by what kind of community we want to be. Publicly controlled sales allow us to keep safety and health a priority from the point of sale, to potential challenges down the road. It’s only common sense.
» Michelle Gawronky is the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.