Pubdate: Fri, 14 Apr 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Neil Boyd, Professor, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University
Page: A11
Referenced: Cannabis Act:


The bill to legalize marijuana is a victory for public health, but the
goal of eliminating an illegal supply will be a tougher challenge.

Marijuana was criminalized in Canada in 1923. There was no debate in
the House of Commons, just the statement, "There is a new drug in the
schedule." The prominent Edmonton magistrate Emily Murphy had written
a book about illegal drugs in 1922, concluding of marijuana, "… there
are three ways out from the regency of this addiction: 1st - Insanity.
2nd - Death. 3rd - Abandonment. This is assuredly a direful trinity."

Between 1923 and 1965, there were only sporadic arrests and
convictions for marijuana offences, but by 1967, there were 1,000
convictions for marijuana possession in that year alone and by the
mid-1970s, more than 40,000 annually. The initial response in the
mid-1960s had been to place 50 per cent of users in jail, often for a
year or more, but usage kept increasing. In 1973, the Le Dain
Commission urged the Pierre Trudeau government to repeal the offence
of possession of marijuana, and gradually move toward the wise
exercise of freedom of choice.

So here we are in 2017, with a Liberal government that has promised to
legalize adult use of the drug for entirely logical and commendable
reasons - to eliminate the black market, with its occasional violence
and untaxed revenues, and to reduce access to youth.

We've slowly come to acknowledge, as a matter of science, that the
line drawn between legal and illegal drugs in the early 20th century
had nothing to do with public health and everything to do with culture
and political economy. Drugs such as alcohol and tobacco were
acceptable items of commerce, while the drugs of the developing world
- - opium, coca and cannabis - were morally offensive and deserved
criminal prohibition. And the arbitrariness of this distinction became
particularly obvious with cannabis, far less toxic and less likely to
cause dependence than either alcohol or tobacco.

The government's legislation, now introduced in the House of Commons,
mandates licensed producers as the suppliers of marijuana for both
medical and recreational markets across the country. Provinces will
have to determine what age is appropriate for purchase and what price
is sufficient to keep the black market at bay. A mail-order system
will operate federally and both provinces and municipalities will have
to determine whether retail outlets will be put in place for medical
and/or recreational users. Decisions will need to be made over the
next year about the role of pharmacies, liquor stores and dispensaries
in each province, and, quite likely, in most municipalities.

Can the government accomplish its goal of eliminating the black market
in this drug? The short answer is probably, but it will not happen
immediately, and there are several policy decisions that might
jeopardize this goal. First, based on lessons learned from Washington
State, we should not set a price that is significantly higher than
current black-market prices. Second, we may not have enough product to
meet initial consumer demand. Again, this may be a short-term problem,
arising from not having a sufficient number of licenced producers.

Third (and this is likely to be a major point of discussion as the
provinces and municipalities grapple with this legislation), what will
happen to dispensaries? They were recommended by the recent government
task force as a retail option, in preference to liquor stores. But
they are currently selling product that does not come from licenced
producers. Can and will that change? If not, the goal of eliminating
the black market will be in jeopardy. Dispensaries will also need to
put measures in place to ensure that youth do not have access, which
is something that liquor stores already do quite well.

The legislation keeps alive the recommendation of the task force that
adults be able to grow up to four plants, with oversight by local
authorities. This proposal has a number of potential pitfalls. Do
municipalities want to oversee what may potentially be tens of
thousands of applications to grow marijuana at home? What of apartment
buildings and the intrusive odours? What if the home grower wants to
use metal halide lights? Who will oversee the safety of installations?
At least initially, a better approach might be one of only permitting
four plants grown outdoors. Difficult for those in Iqaluit, but they
will have mail order.

Finally, as expected, the government has kept its promise to keep the
possession offence intact until the day legalization arrives. It's
difficult to support this approach. Part of the logic of legalization
is a message to users - we don't think you deserve to be regarded as
criminals, subject to arrest, conviction and the possibility of
imprisonment. Why not make that commitment now? It's the most
tentative step the government could have taken, and we have no
evidence from other jurisdictions that use increases when that change
is made.
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