Pubdate: Mon, 27 Nov 2017
Source: Varsity, The (CN ON Edu)
Copyright: 2017 The Varsity
Author: Ramsha Naveed


To effectively combat substance abuse, marijuana tax funds should
primarily be invested in prevention and education

On November 10, the Canadian federal government announced an excise
tax plan that will be implemented when marijuana is legalized next
summer. The plan proposed an excise tax of $1 per gram, or 10 per cent
of the producer's sale price, with the higher amount of the two being

The plan is still in its consultation stage, and there are sure to be
many changes over the next few months. Hopefully the fact that
education and prevention tactics provide better long-term solutions to
addressing substance abuse than punitive mechanisms will guide future
discussions about the tax plan. Moving forward, marijuana legalization
should be approached mainly as an issue of public health - the revenue
from legalization can play a major role in ensuring appropriate
solutions to substance abuse are implemented.

In a November 2016 report entitled "Legalized Cannabis: Fiscal 
Considerations," the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that sales 
tax revenue for legal marijuana could be as high as $959 million in its 
first year. While it is unlikely that this figure will be reached due to 
initial legalization costs, it doesn't include potential revenue from an 
excise tax. Sales and excise taxes combined could make the almost $1 
billion goal an achievable reality.

Meanwhile, substance abuse continues to be a costly problem for the
government and citizens alike. The Canadian Centre on Substance
Abuse(CCSA) claims that substance abuse and addiction isn't an
isolated problem - it burdens our health care, law enforcement, and
criminal justice systems, as well as our overall productivity as a
society. This doesn't even begin to cover the unquantifiable human
costs of substance abuse either, such as decreased life expectancy or
disruption of family life.

In 2006, the CCSA released a report titled "The Costs of Substance
Abuse in Canada 2002." The results were harrowing: the total annual
societal costs of substance abuses was $39.8 billion. Our flailing
health care systemhas struggled to keep up with substance abuse issues
for years. A 2014 CCSA study, "The Impact of Substance Use Disorders
on Hospital Use," showed a 22 per cent increase in hospital costs for
substance abuse-related issues from $219 million in 2006 to $267
million in 2011. This included $14 million in hospital costs along
with a 39 per cent increase in days spent in the hospital for
marijuana users.

These reports speak to a need for a more effective and efficient
system to combat substance abuse and addiction problems. While it
would be misleading to equivocate the repercussions of marijuana abuse
and those associated with hard drugs, the sheer amount of revenue the
government will be bringing in from marijuana legalization can be
redirected to alleviating the problems associated with substance abuse
in general.

The current tax plan calls for a 50-50 split of the revenue between
the federal and provincial governments. Provinces spoke out against
this plan immediately, stating that they deserve a bigger portion of
the revenue given that they are responsible for most of the work and
costs associated with implementing legalization. Municipal governments
have also argued that, because they cover almost 60 per cent of
Canada's policing costs, the revenue should be directed to cities to
help offset them.

Both of these claims mention the enforcement aspect of legalization,
which remains a part of the government's marijuana regulation
strategy. Yet if there is one thing the 'War on Drugs' has taught us,
it is that cracking down on drug use via highly punitive enforcement
measures is an inadequate solution. This approach has proven
ineffective at reducing substance abuse and has burdened the criminal
justice system, incarcerating people at alarming rates while failing
to confront and deal with the root causes of drug use.

Punitive measures can also be extremely costly. A 2005 report by the
Health Officers Council of British Columbia found that for every $5
spent on treatment, the federal government spent $95 on enforcement.
There are substantial costs, financial and otherwise, associated with
incarceration in particular.

In contrast, education and prevention programs deal with reducing harm
by destigmatizing substance abuse so that people can get the help they
need. This approach can be highly beneficial, particularly when it
supersedes harsher measures. An example of this is Vancouver's Four
Pillars drug strategy, which has been successful in preventing the
spread of infectious diseases, overdose deaths, and public drug use by
focusing on the combined principles of harm reduction, prevention,
treatment, and enforcement. This strategy recognizes the need for
policing while emphasizing a preference for non-punitive measures
where possible. In this model, police officers connect non-violent
offenders with health services instead of incarcerating them, a method
that has been commended by the city's Drug Treatment Courts.

Accordingly, the federal government should devise a tax plan that
prioritizes funding education and prevention programs over law
enforcement strategies - not just for marijuana, but for all
substances. Adopting this approach to countering substance abuse and
addiction and using marijuana tax revenue to finance it has the
potential to increase public awareness about marijuana and how to use
it safely. It could also lower the need for extensive policing and
other enforcement costs. Legal substances, which will soon include
marijuana, are the most abused in Canada - almost four times as much
as their illegal counterparts - and it makes sense to use the money
reaped from legalization to prevent harmful misuse.

If the federal government wishes to make the best use of marijuana tax
revenues, they must prioritize investing those funds in the fight
against substance abuse and addiction. Diverting more funding to law
enforcement is unlikely to achieve this goal. Fortunately, the
consultations for the excise tax framework are ongoing, and I would
encourage students to get involved in the process. Individuals and
groups who wish to present their own ideas about the framework can
review the relevant documents at the Department of Finance website and
send written comments by email until December 7.

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Ramsha Naveed is a third-year student at Trinity College studying 
Political Science.
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