Editorial: Change marijuana law, but go carefully

Almost 15 per cent of tobacco products used in B.C. are contraband, costing the provincial treasury an estimated $100 million a year in lost tax revenue. It’s a glimpse of what awaits governments in a legalized-marijuana world.

Legalized — or at least decriminalized — marijuana is inevitable. Its widespread use demands that governments regulate, tax and monitor the use of the drug, just as they do tobacco and alcohol. To do otherwise makes no sense.

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The war on marijuana is a failure. It comes with high costs and collateral damage, and has done nothing to curb the use. Yes, criminality and violence are associated with marijuana, but those aspects arise from the drug’s illegality, not its effects on the human body. You do not have to endorse the use of marijuana — and we do not — to see sound reasons for changing the law.

Some worry the decriminalization will be seen as a stamp of approval, encouraging young people to take up marijuana use. Yet a 2002 Senate report concludes: “We have not legalized cannabis and we have one of the highest rates [of use] in the world. Countries adopting a more liberal policy have, for the most part, rates of usage lower than ours, which stabilized after a short period of growth.”

The high level of marijuana use by younger Canadians is just one unintended consequence of current drug laws, says the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition in a report called Getting to Tomorrow.

“Prohibition abdicated responsibility for regulating drug markets to organized crime, and abandons public-health measures like age restrictions and dosing controls,” says the report.

Marijuana was not made illegal for scientific reasons. Says the 2002 Senate committee report: “Early drug legislation was largely based on a moral panic, racist sentiment and a notorious absence of debate.”

With the Liberals forming a majority government, it appears certain Canada is headed toward legalization of marijuana. It’s time to have that rational, science-based debate and strip the issue of its emotionalism.

One of the arguments for legalization is that it will bring in revenues for governments. There’s already a well-established, complex, illegal system of producing and distributing pot, run by people well-versed in circumventing the law. They won’t suddenly vanish, and they will not willingly give up control.

Governments will be required to ensure quality, consistency and dosages, as well as levying substantial taxes on the product, as they do with alcohol and tobacco. Those factors will be added to the price of the product. That will give an advantage to pot bootleggers, just as high taxes on tobacco have created opportunities for the gangs that deal in contraband cigarettes.

Regulations will be needed to keep marijuana out of the easy reach of minors, and to deal with edible products that contain marijuana or its derivatives. Scientific research is needed on marijuana to get solid facts on the harms and benefits of its use.

The road to legalization won’t be smooth, and it shouldn’t be travelled hastily.

“It’s going to be a lot harder to implement than you think,” says Lewis Koski, director of the Marijuana Enforcement Division in Colorado, where recreational pot has been legal since 2012. “It’s going to take a lot longer to do it. And it’s going to cost more than you think.”

The Liberals have pledged to “legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana.” Now they need to tell us how they are going to do it.

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