Pubdate: Wed, 12 Apr 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Page: A10


The Liberal government is about to introduce legislation to legalize
and regulate marijuana. What's the best way to do that? That's what
Ottawa has been puzzling over ever since the Liberals, led by Justin
Trudeau, made their bold promise in the last election campaign.

For answers, look at how Canada has succeeded, and failed, in dealing
with another recreational product both popular and problematic for
public health: tobacco.

In the early 1990s, the federal government had a plan. If it steadily
raised taxes on cigarettes, it could drive down the rate of smoking -
thereby addressing one of Canada's biggest health challenges.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The higher the price of
something, the less people can afford it. Making cigarettes ever more
costly would, all else equal, make them less accessible.

But all else wasn't equal. Rising taxes did affect buyers and sellers
of tobacco sticks, but the effect was not what the government had in

Instead of simply smoking fewer legal, expensive cigarettes, smokers
started looking for cheaper, illegal alternatives. Smugglers and
bootleggers started bringing cigarettes across the border in huge and
growing quantities. The legal cigarette market - taxed, regulated,
overseen by government - was increasingly being replaced by a black
market: unsupervised, untaxed and run by organized crime.

The tobacco harm-reduction strategy hit a tipping point. Despite the
best of intentions, it appeared to be promoting more harm than it
reduced. In response, cigarette taxes were lowered.

According to Health Canada, 100 Canadians die of a smoking illness
every day. But Ottawa's aggressive move to address that, a generation
ago, ended up creating a whole new social harm.

Even though smoking was never banned, overly high taxes had an impact
that looked very similar to that seen in places that had once had
alcohol prohibition. Making alcohol illegal didn't make alcohol
impossible to get; it just made it impossible to get legally.
Prohibition, intended to reduce the harm of alcohol use, ended up
subsidizing criminality.

In an ideal Canada, drinkers would only drink in moderation, and there
would be no tobacco smokers. But prohibiting the sale of cigarettes,
as was once tried with alcohol, is not realistic, because so many
Canadians want to smoke. Education, social disapprobation, restricting
sales to adults and banning smoking from most public places have all
helped dramatically lower the incidence of smoking. So have cigarette
taxes - up to a point.

Which brings us to marijuana. Some people think legal marijuana will
be a wonderful thing, because they believe marijuana is wonderful,
full stop. The truth, however, is that recreational weed is a mixed
bag. Like tobacco and alcohol, legalization makes sense as a
harm-reduction strategy. The reason for legalizing pot is that the
experience of the past few decades suggests that a lot of people want
to use it and are using it, regardless of its legal status. As a
result, the harm of prohibition, notably the criminality caused by its
illegality, outweighs the benefits.

Canada and the rest of the world have spent a century-and-a-half
experimenting with different models for alcohol and tobacco. That
gives the federal Liberal government - and the provinces, who will end
up carrying the weight of Ottawa's legal changes - some lessons to
borrow and learn from.

Legalization means regulation: The sprouting of pot shops, in
anticipation of legalization, is something legislation must address.
Like cigarettes and alcohol, marijuana should be sold only to adults,
by supervised sellers. It's about ending the situation of drugs being
sold by "a guy," not entrenching it.

Legalization means reducing illegality: The point of legalizing pot is
not to give the imprimatur of legality to all currently illegal
activities - from corner pot shops to the guy on the corner. The aim
is to end the free-for-all.

You need permits, licensing, municipal zoning, inspections and so on
to sell everything from gas to prescription drugs. The same should
apply to legal pot sales. Sounds boring? Peace, order and good
government are supposed to be boring.

Harms must be minimized: Drunk driving is one of Canada's biggest
killers, but progress is being made in reducing its occurrence, thanks
to a combination of education and enforcement. We're going to need
scientifically sound, legally defensible tests for impaired driving
caused by pot use.

Tax to legalize, don't legalize to tax: The main purpose of
legalization is to end criminality and illegality - not to provide a
windfall of new government revenue. Any revenue is a bonus, but it's
not the point. There should be taxes on pot, but they must not be so
high as to achieve the unintended consequence of fostering the
continuation of a black market.
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