The New Brunswick government is going to give more legal teeth to a guideline that legal cannabis stores have to be located far away from schools.
Finance Minister Ernie Steeves says an earlier Liberal policy of locating stores at least 300 metres from schools is going to be written into law or regulation as the province begins allowing privately-run licensed cannabis stores.
He said the guideline was used in choosing locations for the first 20 Cannabis N.B. stores that opened in 2018, but had no force of law.
“That was never formalized in regulation or in policy either,” Steeves said during a legislative committee hearing on his bill.
“Through this initiative we will be looking to formalize and put this into policy and in practice too.”
The government’s bill will allow private operators to open small, stand-alone licensed cannabis stores to sell the Crown corporation’s officially approved products.
“I can’t see it being more than 10” stores in the first phase, Steeves said.
A 2019 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the median distance between a school and a cannabis store in New Brunswick was 549 metres.
The study said government-run stores tended to be farther away from schools than stores in provinces that opted for fully private-sector cannabis retail sales.
The new private stores won’t be allowed to sell other products or be part of existing retailers selling other products.
They’ll also have to have security measures, such as video surveillance and the keeping of records of any employees accessing storage areas for products.
The bill will also allow a small number of “farm gate” operations where New Brunswickers will be allowed to buy cannabis from licensed growers.
Growers, which are already federally regulated, will only be allowed to sell their own product.
In 2019 the Higgs Progressive Conservative government decided to privatize Cannabis N.B., issuing a request for proposals from companies interested in taking over and running the stores.
At the time, Cannabis N.B. was losing money. But by early 2021, it was turning a healthy profit and the Tories abandoned the idea of finding a private operator.
Steeves says allowing small private retailers will hopefully lure more buyers away from illegal cannabis sales.
He said the idea behind the bill is to expand slowly with strict rules in place and then to assess each step before going further.
Liberal MLA Rob McKee used the hearing to congratulate the PCs for opting to stick with the model established by the Liberal government of Premier Brian Gallant.
“I believe that New Brunswickers have been well-served by the Cannabis N.B. retail structure that was set up by the previous government and that is now being maintained and built upon by the current government,” he said.
Steeves said he expects to announce soon some projects that will be funded through the Cannabis Education and Awareness Fund, set up when retails stores opened in 2018.
Two per cent of all retail sales go into the fund, which is supposed to pay for education and awareness campaigns about the health risks of consuming cannabis.
But in more than three years, only $50,000 of the $2 million collected so far has been used.
The minister said an advisory committee met recently and will give him recommendations “any day now” on some more projects.
Steeves said Friday there are now 113 illegal cannabis dispensaries in the province, about half of which are on First Nations reserves.
In 2019 then-Cannabis N.B. CEO Patrick Parent said the volume of black-market sales was one reason the Crown corporation was having trouble making money.
But the company said last fall it had turned things around with better pricing and “the regulated and safety standards of our products.”
First Nations dispensaries
Steeves repeated the government’s previous assertion on Friday that First Nations dispensaries are illegal.
But he did not directly answer questions from opposition MLAs about whether the province has the authority to enforce its cannabis regulations on reserves.
Steeves said competitively priced legal cannabis was “the best countermeasure” to protect the public from illegal sales.
And he said the province was open to proposals from reserves for legal cannabis stores.
“We certainly remain open to discussing opportunities with First Nations communities interested in retailing regulated cannabis products, and we certainly would examine that further at that time,” he said.