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MADD urges Alberta pursue public model on cannabis to ensure safety first


EDMONTON — The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants Alberta to sell marijuana through government-run stores — at least in the short term — to ensure public safety before profit.

Andrew Murie, the CEO of MADD, points to marijuana stores in the United States that slash prices to mark the annual April 20 counter-culture celebration of public cannabis consumption.

"There are a lot of people that want to make a lot of money on this legalization, a lot of entrepreneurs, and they're not interested in public safety," Murie said in an interview Thursday.

"I think governments, especially the provincial government, (need to) stand up and say, 'Look we will proceed with caution, and we will make sure that we're not losing a lot of young people, which is the greatest risk.'"

MADD and other groups are weighing in on Alberta's plans to regulate and enforce the legalization of recreational use of marijuana starting July 1.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Wednesday the plan is to have the legal age of consumption set at 18 to match the legal age for drinking and smoking. 

The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission would distribute and oversee sales, but Ganley said the province hasn't decided whether the government should sell weed or let private entrepreneurs do it. Alberta regulates and sells its liquor through private stores.

Ivonne Martinez, head of the Alberta Liquor Store Association, said that model has shown it can work and required zoning restrictions are already in place to keep stores away from where kids gather.

"If you want to try to meet the tight deadlines that the federal government is putting forward … I think that meets all of their requirements," said Martinez.

No matter what the model, Ganley said cannabis will not be sold in the same venues as tobacco, alcohol or pharmaceutical drugs.

Martinez said existing liquor stores could adapt, physically wall off two sides and create separate entrances.

The Alberta Medical Association declined comment Thursday, but has made it clear it strongly disagrees with setting the legal age at 18 instead of 21.

"Legalizing recreational cannabis at an age of 18 knowing the clear effects on the developing brain and higher risk of addiction at younger ages is inappropriate," the association said in previous written submissions. "It sends a message that there is no increase in risk and harm to youth, which is clearly incorrect."

Ganley has said 18 makes sense because it's better to have young people get marijuana over the counter than from a drug dealer.

The federal government won't allow the sale of cannabis-laced edible products until it develops regulatory oversight to dictate things such as serving sizes, potency and health warnings.

The state of Colorado legalized marijuana use in 2012 and has seen a rise in accidental ingestion and poisonings among children.

Kathy Belton of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta said she wants to see more information on how governments plan to keep kids safe.

"The age limit is not what is shown to be best practice, but I understand why the province chose 18 years," said Belton in an email.

"The more distressing point is the lack of detail about the consumer education program."

Ganley is also promising tougher rules on enforcement before next July.

Calgary police chief Roger Chaffin, acting head of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, says officers will face a complex challenge when marijuana goes from being a black and white issue to multiple shades of grey.

For example, any adult caught with 30 grams of marijuana will be within the law — but 30.5 grams is not.

"One more joint went from being legal to being illegal," said Chaffin.

"That's where we continue to work with the government … to make sure we have a consistent approach for how we will manage those things. Do they become criminal matters? Are they matters that are going to handled under provincial legislation? These things are not yet answered."

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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