OTTAWA — One way or another, Manitobans will have legal access to marijuana after July 1, 2018.

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This article was published 19/6/2017 (1396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — One way or another, Manitobans will have legal access to marijuana after July 1, 2018.

The federal government says it's prepared to roll out mail-order marijuana if Manitoba can't update its laws by Ottawa's 2018 deadline for legalized pot.

That's left Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen with "a sense of frustration" as he left a two-day summit of his provincial and federal colleagues.

Friesen accused Ottawa of ignoring unanswered questions on issues like public safety, enforcement and finding legal supplies of marijuana. He said federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau "seemed firm" against Friesen’s request for an unspecified extension.

"We're saying let's have a conversation about these very complex issues; we need to get this right," Friesen told the Free Press. "The federal minister's a bit resistant to the issues we're raising."

Friesen raised the issue of increased distracted-driving incidents, which already make up for a third of road accidents in Manitoba. He also said sudden legalization would lead to a limited supply of government-owned pot, giving drug dealers a competitive advantage.

"We really get one chance to get this right," he said.

Friesen said his Quebec and Nova Scotia counterparts also wanted an extension; the Free Press was not able to verify this with either province's minister.

But Morneau insists there’s enough time to navigate issues around the legislation, which the Liberals tabled in April. "To get things done, you need to set a timeline," he said.

Morneau suggested the feds will "be the backstop," in distributing and taxing marijuana in some provinces "if they're not able to get there in time." That would include a mail-order system similar to one currently used for medicinal marijuana.

Pot taxation is expected to stay low to ensure the regulated market squeezes out the illegal activity. But lawmakers have yet to offer details on how tax revenues could be shared between provinces and the federal government.

Ottawa has signalled it would like to reach a "co-ordinated approach" with the provinces. Finance ministers like Friesen insist they receive a share of pot-related tax revenue, to fairly reflect the added policing and regulations costs provinces will have to assume on the road to legalization.

Morneau said some of his counterparts — whom he carefully avoided naming — were worried about different ages of majority that currently apply for buying alcohol, and uneven sales taxes among provinces, including Alberta, which has no provincial tax.

He claimed the provinces didn’t discuss revenue estimates or even rough tax rates, because their priority is keeping marijuana away from children. He said officials need "more evidence" to decide whether marijuana will be taxed by volume or potency.

But he stressed a year is enough time to set tax rates. "We've given ourselves, we believe, ample time," Morneau said, suggesting the finance ministers’ next meeting in December will give provinces time to develop their own plans.

But Friesen says that’s not enough time to co-ordinate.

The province tabled provincial Bill 25 "as a stop-gap measure" in February, Friesen said, in case Ottawa acted too quickly. "Hopefully, they will bend. Hopefully they'll be that acknowledgment that this is just too much too soon."

Friesen also said a cannabis working group has been assessing the next steps on key issues like taxation, consumption, sobriety tests and public awareness campaigns. "We can’t have a half-baked cake here."

Meanwhile, Friesen said he didn’t raise the situation in Churchill with officials in Ottawa.  The only land transportation into the northern Manitoba town, the railway run by Omnitrax, has been derailed by poor track conditions.

Similarily, Morneau said the two didn't discuss the federal carbon tax, nor the outstanding health accord. Manitoba is the only province to have not signed Ottawa's healthcare agreement, and it joins Saskatchewan in holding out on implementing its version of a carbon tax — which Ottawa says it will implement on provinces who haven't set a levy by 2018. 

--With files from The Canadian Press

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

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