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By Maxwell DeGroat
Frontier Centre for Public Policy
Health Canada’s consultation with Canadians on the regulation of marijuana is down to its final days. But what exactly does the government wants us to comment on?
Do officials want us to question the stated objectives? Or perhaps they want us to ask why they’re being dishonest about their consultation process?
We’re in the middle of an opioid crisis that has already killed thousands of Canadians and will likely kill thousands more. That clouds this conversation.
Yet our experience with other drugs and even ordinary consumer products tells us that government regulations to protect public health by ensuring product safety and quality control are extremely important.
There’s also a solid case to be made against burdening recreational cannabis users with criminal records and the criminal justice system with non-violent recreational cannabis users.
Yet in the public proposals, these apparently sensible and straightforward considerations take second billing to three reasons given by the government. Health Canada says the proposed Cannabis Act will:
- Restrict youth access to cannabis;
- Protect young people from enticements to use cannabis;
- Impose criminal penalties on people caught violating the law, in particular people illegally importing or exporting cannabis or providing it to minors.
But isn’t that what we already have in place?
It’s difficult to imagine what more the government could do. The last government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act already stiffened the penalties for trafficking marijuana. It added mandatory minimum sentencing provisions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, including two years for people convicted of dealing drugs near school grounds.
To date, one of these provisions has been struck down by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the government is still talking as if it will be tough on crime.
It’s only government wishful thinking to expect young people to become less interested in consuming cannabis once it’s legal. Granted, it’s not impossible to imagine that young people may not be interested in smoking pot, but it’s statistically highly improbable. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of 15 to 17 year olds smoking tobacco dropped from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. But this is hardly surprising given that smoking tobacco became illegal in nearly all public places over that same period. At the same time, there has been a relentless intensification of anti-smoking propaganda directed at young people.
So far, there’s little indication of a similar reduction in the popularity of marijuana. If anything, more young people will experiment with marijuana when it’s legal than when it was illegal. In fact, recent research shows that marijuana use among 15 to 17 year olds holding steady at 20 per cent. And with more adults possessing legal cannabis, ease of access for their kids will only increase.
The government has dishonestly omitted from the discussion another objective: the increase in tax revenues from the legal sale of weed. This could easily make legal cannabis uncompetitive with the black market weed.
The case against Gerard Comeau, being heard by the Supreme Court, has raised the hopes of free marketeers for an end to state-run monopolies in Canada. Comeau bought beer in Quebec and brought it back into New Brunswick.
In fact, the Comeau case could lower trade barriers within the country, forcing provincial monopolies like liquor control boards to compete nationally. That could be a welcome victory for free-market supporters but could also be a recipe for online free market with inadequate or no controls against youth access.
If this happens, the misperception informing the political push for marijuana legalization, that the kids are all doing it anyway, may become a reality. Our vulnerable youth will have access to and be using weed.
We don’t know the consequences of such a societal shift but we’ll soon find out.
Maxwell DeGroat is research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a lawyer practising in Calgary.
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