Pubdate: Tue, 29 May 2018
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2018 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andre Picard


In 2012, Washington State voted to legalize marijuana. By 2014, the 
world's first system for legally growing, processing and retailing 
cannabis was operating.

As Canada prepares to go live with pot sales in a few months, what can 
we learn from four years of practical, hands-on experience in the 
western United States?

The first take-away is that all the fretting about the impact on 
children and teens is largely unwarranted.

Before legalization, 17 per cent of Grade 10 students in Washington 
State said they had smoked pot in the previous month. Four years of 
legal doobies later, 17 per cent of Grade 10 students say they have 
smoked pot in the previous month.

"We thought we would see a significant increase in teen use," said Rick 
Garza, director of the Washington State Liquor Control and Cannabis 
Board. "But what the kids will tell you is that they didn't need adults 
to legalize it to get their hands on cannabis."

Many teens experiment with marijuana, as they do with alcohol (about 
two-thirds for the two substances), but only a minority use them 
semi-regularly. The presence of legal retail outlets and legal age for 
purchase (21 in Washington State, 18-19 in Canada) doesn't make a whit 
of difference.

Mr. Garza, who spoke to the annual conference of the B.C. Pharmacy 
Association in Victoria last week, noted, however, that legal sales have 
made a dent in the black market.

"Research shows we have 63 per cent of the cannabis market, which far 
exceeds our predictions," he said. People continue to buy street drugs 
largely because it's cheaper. Wresting control of the drug trade from 
the mob is complicated.

In Washington State, cannabis sells from about US$7 a gram and up (the 
same or lower than the street price, especially when stores stage 
promotions such as $2 Tuesdays). Only 60 per cent of sales are dried 
cannabis and oil; 26 per cent of sales are extracts for inhalation and 
vaping; most of the balance is edibles. (In Canada, edibles will not be 
legal until 2019.)

Washington State imposes a 37-per-cent excise tax on all 
cannabis-related products, plus retail sales taxes that vary locally. In 
Canada, cannabis will sell for about $8-10 a gram (only in dried and oil 
form), plus an excise tax of $1 a gram, or 10 per cent, whichever is 
higher, as well as sales tax.

Washington State charges excise tax on both recreational and medical 
cannabis, which are sold side-by-side in retail outlets.

Canada has - and will continue to have - a separate system for users of 
medical marijuana, of which there are currently 240,000 registered. 
There has been a push to exempt medical marijuana from the new excise 
tax, the argument being that it is a prescription drug that is essential.

Washington State's experience in this area is informative. It legalized 
medical marijuana in 1998 and had 130,000 authorized users. After the 
legalization of recreational marijuana, that number fell sharply to 
about 30,000.

"It was really easy to get a medical card," Mr. Garza noted. "We 
estimate that only about 20 per cent of medical users were using for 
medical reasons."

Larry Wolk, Colorado's Chief Medical Officer, made a similar 
observation. "About 97 per cent of medical cannabis users are 
20-year-old snowboarders with chronic debilitating pain," he said with a 

At the same time, Dr. Wolk said there are legitimate uses for medical 
cannabis, such as Dravet syndrome and other seizure disorders, 
post-traumatic stress disorder, nausea and so on, but more research is 
needed to determine effective strains and doses.

Dr. Wolk said that the most reassuring news for lawmakers in Canada is 
that legalization of cannabis has had virtually no impact on public 
health in Colorado or other states. (Recreational marijuana is now legal 
in nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana 
is legal in 29 states.)

There has been no appreciable increase in cannabis use, especially in 
young people, there has been no increase in impaired driving, and only a 
slight blip in emergency-room admissions, which Dr. Wolk attributes 
principally to pot tourists who come to Colorado and overindulge, 
particularly on edibles.

For all the rhetoric about the potential harms of legalized cannabis - 
especially from the Canadian Senate - the objective evidence from the 
jurisdictions that have lived with it for years is that we don't have 
much to fear.

The kids will be all right. So will their parents and grandparents - who 
will actually be the consumers of legal cannabis.
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