It’s the drug economy, stupid

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 9 | Nov. 5 – 12, 2010

Despite the fact that we have a Conservative government in power, the time has never been better for decriminalizing marijuana. Many assumptions that fuel the war on drugs have been refuted, while  economic arguments in favour of regulation and taxation are compelling. And let’s not forget that a slim majority of Canadians support legalization.

The policy of criminalization has largely benefited criminals, who are willing to flout the law anyway, and who exploit the multi-billion dollar demand of North American society in order to fund other operations. There are also safety issues that arise from marijuana being relegated to the shadow world of illegality. While fears in the 1960s of joints laced with other drugs by unscrupulous dealers were largely exaggerated, it remains true that illegal transactions always carry an implicit danger.

Government-regulated marijuana would lower the risks by ensuring that the product is safe. Stephen Easton of the Fraser Institute points out that the production cost of government-sponsored marijuana is roughly 33 cents a gram, while the street value of marijuana is  $10 a gram. He argues that the Canadian government could raise $40 billion to $100 billion in new revenue if it sold marijuana at the street rate.

Besides the domestic market, decriminalization would almost certainly  be a boon for American tourists; however, the reaction from south of the border would likely produce  mixed results, since the U.S. has already tightened up its borders in recent years.

Both the U.S. and Canada rely heavily on the “gateway drug” theory, the idea that smoking marijuana will lead to the use of harder drugs, which is inaccurate and misleading. The fact that weed is illegal means that users become accustomed to breaking the law. And many of our citizens do. Roughly 600,000 Canadians have been indicted for the personal use of marijuana; around 30,000 arrests are made annually. This is a fraction of the total number of marijuana users, estimated to be roughly 4.5 million.

Marijuana decriminalization came close to being put into law twice, but both bills died, by prorogue (2004) and election (2006). The Conservatives did not resurrect the legalization issue, and have instead gone the other way. Bill C-15: Mandatory Minimums for Cannabis currently awaits approval in the Senate, and if passed will take discretion away from judges and almost increase prison sentences. Compare this to a 2009 Angus Reid poll that indicated that 53 per cent of Canadians support the  legalization of marijuana. While most Canadians are in favour of tougher enforcement on hard drugs, marijuana should not be confused with cocaine, ecstasy, or crystal meth. While habit-forming, it is not addictive, nor does it have a lethal dose, unlike alcohol.

The Netherlands has implemented an intelligent drug policy that has bolstered tourism to Amsterdam,  and in Mexico it is no longer illegal to possess and use up to five grams of marijuana. We could easily do the same in Canada. When the laws no longer reflect reality, when a massive percentage of the populace engages in victimless crimes, when violating those laws is socially acceptable and even commonplace, and when more physically and socially harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol are openly sold and promoted, then we lose some of our respect for those laws. For economic, social, and democratic reasons, the move towards decriminalization must be rekindled.

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