George Le Masurier: B.C. should harvest revenue from marijuana

British Columbia, a province usually anxious to tax anything within its reach, has curiously kept its hands off of a large source of potential revenue: marijuana.

While Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska inhale multimillions of dollars of tax revenue by regulating the production, distribution and retail sale of marijuana for medical and recreation use, B.C. lets this windfall slip away.

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The province could help shape the federal legislation expected next year by putting a regulatory system in place now, and jump-start its revenue stream.

This wouldn’t take as long or be as difficult as it might seem. Washington state has an excellent model for a system that could be more or less copied and pasted into B.C. law.

That state collected $67.5 million in 2015, its first full year of operation. This year, it expects to collect $154.6 million. The state’s Office of Financial Management predicts $1 billion of new revenue over four years.

And a revenue windfall isn’t the only benefit of a fully regulated system. Right now, marijuana growers and sellers are running loose in the province. It’s a Wild West environment. Nobody can verify who’s growing the pot sold in stores, who they are selling it to or what’s in it.

From Sidney to Vancouver to Toronto, marijuana retail stores are popping up as fast as the RCMP can raid them. The Liberal government says it’s committed to legalization, but while it dithers over the details of national legislation, the market is spinning out of control.

Instead of rushing into a national marijuana-legalization program, the federal government should look the other way while B.C. develops a regulated market that includes rules pertaining to driving under the influence, banking, public consumption and retail store locations. A smaller provincial experiment can expose weaknesses and oversights and enact quicker corrections.

Those real-life test results can lead to a better-written federal law. Or, the B.C. experiment could allow the Trudeau government to step back from a nationwide legalization that might violate international law, and let other provinces choose whether to follow B.C.’s lead.

We must merge the recreational and medical markets. Let’s shake off the nudge-nudge, wink-wink reality of medical marijuana. Yes, it’s been a help for people with certain medical conditions, but it’s also been a false front for people who just want to get high.

In Washington state, it was estimated that 90 per cent of cannabis sold for ostensibly medical purposes was, in fact, consumed recreationally. Interestingly, the medical market ballooned in 2011 when naturopathic physicians were added to the list of providers who could write pot prescriptions.

A regulated system should include a patient registry to differentiate recreational users from bona fide medicinal users, who could qualify for tax exemptions.

If there is sufficient legitimate demand for the low-hallucinogenic, high-analgesic cannabis preferred by medical users, retail stores will provide it. And medical users would have the option of growing their own.

The province will also need to use some of the new tax revenue to fund substance-abuse awareness programs, primarily aimed at children. Of course, parents must play an important role in educating their children about marijuana, and that includes keeping any edibles at home securely out of their reach. Colorado experienced a surge of hospital visits by children who accidentally ate pot-laced treats.

Marijuana legalization advocates have successfully argued that smoking marijuana poses no greater threat to society than drinking alcohol, and that prohibition will not work. Both are true. Like alcohol, marijuana is not risk-free, which argues for a government-regulated system of production, distribution and retail sales.

The federal government has recognized the historical transformation of social values during the early years of the 21st century.

Whenever communal morals shift so significantly, governments must eventually conform their laws to reflect the public’s will.

B.C. could and should generate millions of dollars in revenue and lead the nation in clearing up the current tangled mess of conflicting laws and regulations.


George Le Masurier lives in the Comox Valley.

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