'When are we going to see action?': The changes needed for Manitoba's cannabis rules
Nearly five years after the legalization of marijuana in Canada, one local cannabis retailer feels Manitoba should be more proactive and flexible when it comes to regulating pot sales in our province.
RJ Kusmack worked as a beer sales rep for more than ten years for companies like Big Rock and Sleeman’s before the pandemic forced him into a career change.
“I got laid off due to COVID in April 2021. I had never been without a job, and I'd been contemplating getting out of the beer industry and being self-employed,” he said.
It was a conversation with his friend Chris Graves – owner of the King’s Head Pub – that finally pushed him to open a cannabis store.
“He said, ‘what the heck you going to do with the rest of your life?’ And I said, ‘I think I have a really good concept for cannabis retail store,” Kusmack said.
He opened Fiddler’s Green at 124 King Street in the fall of 2021. Kusmack said opening in the middle of a pandemic led to a slow start, but business has picked up since then.
“The first year has been really great. It's been a success for us.”
Kusmack said cannabis customers are very different from the ones he dealt with as a beer sales rep.
“They’re some of the most creative, hardworking, gentle, kind creatures you'll ever see,” he said.
He said being located next to a popular Winnipeg pub shows the difference between the two customer types.
“The two rooms have different energies. Come here on a Friday night at 11:00 p.m. Walk into Fiddler’s Green and see how calm and peaceful things are, and then walk into the King's Head and people are crowd surfing. You know, it's just different,” said Kusmack.
It’s been nearly five years since the federal government legalized the sale of cannabis across Canada on Oct. 17, 2018. The industry has grown exponentially in Manitoba since then, with both local independent stores like Fiddler’s Green opening, as well as publicly traded corporate chains like Fire & Flower Cannabis, which operates multiple locations across the country.
Matthew Anderson is executive vice president, legal compliance and business affairs at Fire & Flower Cannabis. He said Canada’s burgeoning cannabis industry hasn’t been without some growing pains.
“The federal Cannabis Act allowed federal legalization, but it deferred to the provinces to set their own regime for licensing of retailers,” said Anderson. “In effect what that also did was delegate some authority to the provinces to administer the federal restrictions when it comes to marketing and some other aspects of the cannabis laws. So, we have a bit of an inter-jurisdictional conflict.”
One of those restrictions became the centre of scrutiny in Alberta last year after a series of attacks outside of cannabis stores led the government to stop enforcing the rule that all cannabis retail storefronts must be covered to keep youth from seeing inside.
“They made the decision to simply stop enforcing the restrictions on visibility into a storefront. So now in Alberta we can walk down the street and you can see a lit cannabis store, you can see the shelving in the distance. Maybe you could see some cannabis containers on the shelf,” said Anderson.
Kusmack said he would love to see the Manitoba government take similar action before something bad happens at his store.
“My staff deserve to see sunlight. My staff deserve to be safe,” he said. “There's nothing stopping a gang of hooligans gathering on the outside of that window at night, and when my staff leave, who knows what would happen?”
Kusmack said cannabis customers are very different from the ones he dealt with as a beer sales rep. (source: CTV News Winnipeg)
Kusmack said Manitoba could also follow Ontario’s lead in allowing public consumption lounges for cannabis use. Earlier this month, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce submitted a proposal to the Ontario government to allow for the opening of cannabis lounges.
“I think that cannabis consumers do deserve places in public to consume cannabis,” said Kusmack.
For the first few years of legalization, Manitoba was the only province to charges cannabis retailers a “social responsibility fee” (SRF). Kusmack said in its first year of operation, Fiddler’s Green had to pay 6 per cent of its gross sales to the province but was not allowed to list that charge on sales receipts.
“We are as a store are paying 6% of all of our gross sales right to our provincial government for social responsibility fees,” said Kusmack. “And then when we ask as an industry, where is that money going and what has it been spent on? It is a very lackluster response.”
The Manitoba Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority (LGCA) said in an email to CTV News that it received just part of the money collected for the SRF, “The LGCA receives a portion of the SRF and uses it to offset the costs and resources needed for cannabis regulation and the public education campaigns we do to inform the public about lower-risk cannabis use and safety,” said the email. “The LGCA is not responsible, however, for the SRF and its distribution. The amount the LGCA receives varies from year to year and in 2021/22, we received $898,391.”
The Manitoba government has since repealed the SRF, announcing in November 2022 that cannabis retailers only had to pay the fee until the end of that year. Anderson applauds the Manitoba government for making that decision.
“Not only was it charged sort of on top and then remitted back to the provincial government, but we were prohibited from including it in the receipt,” he said. “We had to bury the social responsibility fee right into the product … we think customers deserve to get a safe legal product info and deserve to be treated like responsible adults.”
Health Canada is currently conducting a review of the federal Cannabis Act legislation. The LGCA said it will follow the federal government’s lead when it comes to changes to enforcement. “When considering legislative and regulatory amendments, the LGCA always endeavors to engage with stakeholders including those in our regulated industries, but also impacted areas like public health and law enforcement,” said the email statement.
Kusmack said communication with the provincial body overseeing cannabis sales has not been good. “Anytime that the cannabis industry has asked for answers, they'll give us a deadline on when they're replying to our questions, and then they'll ask for extensions.”
He said he just wants to know that the government is staying on top of this rapidly changing industry.
“When are we going to get answers, and when are we going to see action?”
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