Northern communities will be allowed to prevent retail cannabis stores from opening even after the drug becomes legal on Wednesday.
Legislation in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon gives towns the option of voting to block cannabis stores within their boundaries.
“If there is a First Nation community or municipal government that says they don’t want cannabis, we’re supporting their position,” said John Streicker, Yukon’s Minister of Community Services. “We won’t try to introduce cannabis into a community that has said they don’t want it.”
Nunavut has taken a similar stand.
“There is no prohibition against cannabis in the community outright,” said Daniel Young, director of Nunavut’s Liquor and Cannabis Commission. “It is within the control of the community whether or not they want a physical store.”
The Northwest Territories has gone even further. Not only will local authorities be able to prevent cannabis stores from opening, residents of those communities won’t even be able to order it by mail.
“(The) store will check (the) order with identification provided and verify … the cannabis order is not being shipped to a community where cannabis is prohibited,” say the N.W.T.’s guidelines for prospective retailers.
The only outlet authorized to sell cannabis online in the N.W.T. will be the government store in Yellowknife.
Nunavut — where the official language authority has coined the Inuktut term “surrarnaqtuq” for marijuana — will allow only online sales for the first year of cannabis legalization.
The other two territories will sell marijuana at outlets they already use for alcohol. Yukon will have one store in Whitehorse and the N.W.T. will have a total of six.
The territories have a long tradition of giving communities the right to control access to intoxicants. There are 13 officially dry communities in Nunavut, six in the N.W.T. and one in Yukon.
Not only is it illegal to buy booze there, it’s illegal to have it.
Bootlegging is widespread. Nunavut’s Justice Department has gathered reports of bootleggers making $10,000 in a single weekend — one of the reasons the territory chose to allow online cannabis sales in all its communities.
“We know cannabis is already prevalent in communities,” said Young.
“We felt prohibition isn’t working and offering that isn’t a viable option. It wouldn’t be enforceable and it would be the same as it currently is.”
Statistics Canada found in 2015 that 27 per cent of Nunavummiut older than 12 had smoked cannabis at least once in the previous week and that 11 per cent used it daily.
Legalization has been an intense topic of discussion in the North.
“When we engaged Yukoners as we were developing the legislation, we had the most input ever on any engagement that we’ve ever had,” Streicker said.
The N.W.T. held meetings in seven communities and there were 1,100 responses to an online questionnaire.
In Nunavut, public hearings were held in 11 of the territory’s 25 communities.
Support for legalization is strong in all three territories.
Streicker said 80 per cent of Yukoners who contacted the government were in support. Support was at 75 per cent in Nunavut.
In the N.W.T., just over one per cent of those who participated in the government’s process disagreed with legalization.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960