Minimal changes required to sell cannabis in liquor stores: Unions

But marijuana seller says different training required for staff

Liquor and marijuana might be an ideal match, at least when it comes to retail, according to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). 

The union representing Ontario liquor retail workers wants legalized non-medical marijuana to be sold in the province’s LCBO stores. 

“It’s just a really good system and there’s one of those systems in every province,” said OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas. 

“I hate to insult the government of Ontario but I don’t really trust them to create a system to do it. If they had to start from scratch, I think they would botch it.”

Similarly, the BC Government Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) and B.C. Private Liquor Store Association (BCPLSA) are advocating for the sale of recreational cannabis through the province’s existing alcohol distribution and retail system. 

The calls for cannabis sales come after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to move ahead with the legalization of non-medical marijuana for sale to adults. In late 2015, he called on Canada’s newly appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to collaborate with other ministers and create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana. 

The federal government will create a task force to consult with legal authorities, public safety officials and Health Canada scientists as it examines the issues of legalization, according to Minister of Health Jane Philpott. 

Concerns about interaction 
But Travis Lane, general manager of Trees Dispensary in Victoria, B.C., said it’s not a good idea to put cannabis side by side with alcohol on shelves.

“I have concerns about the interaction between the two substances. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.” 

Liquor retail workers don’t have the training necessary to adequately educate customers on the effects of cannabis use, he said, let alone the use of cannabis when combined with alcohol. The sale of cannabis should be considered through a similar lens as those applied to naturopathic health and herbalism, said Lane.

“Cannabis workers are experts that are trained in the health benefits of this plant,” he said of the dispensary community in B.C. 
“If you just train people in retail procedure and that’s all, I think you’ll find customers are missing out on a lot of the benefits,” said Lane. 

He compared the employees at Trees to sommeliers, saying the dispensary business is more closely related to the service industry than to retail. 

“We pride ourselves on taking a very personal approach,” he said. “We encourage our staff to get anecdotal evidence and experience and put that forward to customers to help them evaluate their options. Cannabis is a very subjective experience. When you drink a bottle of wine, most people experience a very similar effect from the alcohol. With cannabis, products affect everyone differently.” 

Marijuana’s many forms — including edibles and oils — require even further specialization, he said. 

Every customer at Trees Dispensary has an account, said Lane, so the company is able to track each individual purchase and use an employee’s history to help him make more informed purchases. 

The Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) has also spoken out about the importance of using the existing system for the distribution of legalized cannabis. 

“Dispensaries have 20 years of expertise in providing safe and dignified access to medical cannabis along with education on its use,” said CAMCD president Jamie Shaw. “It makes the most sense to utilize the existing distribution system to sell cannabis in a legalized context.” 

Cannabis is not comparable to alcohol, said the association, with significantly different storage and handling requirements and patterns of use. Liquor retailers would have to make major changes to accommodate cannabis sales.

Employees can adapt
Thomas disagreed, arguing training and additional equipment would easily allow LCBO employees to adapt to the sale of marijuana. 

“They do introduce new (alcohol) products all the time so they have a process in place for adding new products,” he said.

 “The LCBO does over 500,000 product testings a year to ensure purity and quality. They have those labs in place already and I’m told by members who do that work in those labs that they could quite easily adapt to test pot.” 

If legalization goes ahead, there needs to be a strong regulatory framework in place, including minimum age limits, a ban on marketing and a plan to prevent cannabis-impaired driving, said Thomas. 

LCBO employees’ training in enforcing minimum age limits and its emphasis on social responsibility will be of particular importance if marijuana is legalized in Canada, he said. 

“Alcohol is a drug so we already have a control system in place for the sale of drugs. The LCBO could adapt very quickly, with minimal cost.”

Open discussions
While Lane disagreed with the unions’ push for cannabis to be sold in liquor stores, he said he appreciates that these issues — and the issues of legalization and regulation in general — are being discussed so openly. 

“I think it’s a great sign for the legitimization of our industry,” he said. “While I’m not for cannabis being sold in liquor stores, I am glad to see the unions step forward and want to take this.”

The more significant issue that needs to be addressed, said Thomas, is the potential impact the legalization of marijuana could have on society as a whole. 

“There’s a whole host of issues for society to think about. And I would hope that governments of all stripes and in all provinces would have extensive consultation with all stakeholders,” he said, mentioning concerns the legalization of marijuana could lead to a “pot deficit” similar to the costs associated with alcohol use. 

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