Pubdate: Fri, 14 Apr 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Page: A10


The true test of Justin Trudeau's commitment to his sound pot policy
will be how his government handles the hurdles to come

By tabling legislation to overturn Canada's 94-year-old prohibition on
pot, the Trudeau government has put forward its first truly bold bit
of public policy. And it's a good one. The ban on marijuana has
brought a great deal of misery, while delivering few benefits. Yet
legalization is far from a fait accompli. The true test of Justin
Trudeau's commitment to this policy will be how his government handles
the hurdles to come.

The federal government should be congratulated for the Cannabis Act,
not least because because it gets some tricky details right.

The proposed Cannabis Act would make Canada the first G7 nation to
legalize pot across the country and put in place a framework to
regulate and tax its sale. It's worth pausing to reflect on just how
sensible this is.

The annual cost to police and courts of enforcing Canada's current
marijuana laws is roughly $500 million. Add to that the hefty
financial burden of incarceration, compounded by a decade of punitive
Conservative crime policies and, in particular, the misguided
introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for minor marijuana offences

For this high price, what have we bought? The evidence suggests little
benefit and a world of pain.

Fewer than half of the tens of thousands of people arrested annually
for pot-related crimes are convicted, which suggests a vast waste of
police resources. And those who are convicted end up with criminal
records that can affect jobs, foreign travel, even citizenship -
punishments that, in most cases, far outweigh the crime and which
drastically increase the likelihood of future, more serious
criminality. The U.S. example has made clear that getting tough on
drug offences is a recipe not for public safety, but for the opposite.

Neither are the public-health benefits of the ban very compelling.
It's true that while marijuana is less toxic than booze or cigarettes,
it has been shown to have a deleterious effect on the developing
brain. Yet the evidence suggests the prohibition does nothing to
protect children. A 2012 United Nations study found teenagers are more
likely to use marijuana in Canada than in most other countries,
including the Netherlands and Spain, where the drug is legal. Nor has
recent legalization in Colorado or other American states caused any
measurable reefer madness among the young - or anyone else, for that

Rather, Trudeau was right last year when he said, somewhat
counter-intuitively, that legalization, if done right, actually has
the potential actually to manage access.

Marijuana is a relatively benign, widely used drug. The prohibition
against it costs the public hundreds of millions of dollars every
year, leads to higher crime rates and ensures that gang-run black
markets thrive, while failing to limit children's access or reduce use
among the general population. You'd have to be very high to think
that's good policy.

Trudeau is absolutely right to seek to regulate the drug and ensure
that it's safe, to tax it and put proceeds into public education about
the risks and to kill, or at least maim, the black market in the process.

His government should be congratulated for the Cannabis Act, not least
because it gets many of the tricky details right.

The legislation largely follows the sensible guidelines set out last
year by a federal task force, including setting the national minimum
legal age at 18. This is significantly lower than the Canadian Medical
Association's recommendation of 21 - and for good reason. The reality
is that 18 to 20 is the prime age for experimenting with marijuana.
Banning these people from getting the drug legally would all but
guarantee the continuation of a thriving black market and would do
little to keep pot out of their hands.

This bill doesn't ignore the health issues around marijuana use. In
fact, this, rather than punishing users, is rightly the government's
focus. The Cannabis Act would prohibit advertising aimed at young
people, and require that the drug be sold in childproof plain
packaging. Perhaps most important, the government tabled a separate
bill that would introduce new drugged driving offences, which would
carry stiff penalties.

The legislation promises a great deal, but whether its full benefits
are realized will inevitably depend in large part on implementation.
Some aspects of this are purely federal, such as the licensing of
producers. But the bill deliberately leaves to provinces key
decisions, such as distribution, price and whether to accept or raise
the minimum age for access.

An important test for Trudeau now will be how effectively he can work
with provincial governments, especially those like Manitoba that are
opposed to legalization, to ensure the benefits are not undermined by
timidity or obstruction.

The government has said it hopes to see legalization become official
by July 1, 2018. It will be under considerable political pressure to
meet this deadline, or at the very least see its pot plan come to
fruition by the next election. In the wake of the government's
abandoned promise on electoral reform, its troubling delays on new
transparency measures and tax-code changes and its mixed record on
indigenous reconciliation, some of the young and progressive voters
that propelled the Liberals to power have grown wary.

There will be many opponents of legalization, including in Parliament
and among premiers, that will test the government's resolve. Much
depends, both for Canadians and for Trudeau, on how it navigates the
inevitable challenges ahead.
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