Canadian drug policy is irrational and costly

Last week’s column in The Cord on the failure of California voters to legalize the recreational use of marijuana raised some important implications for Canadians to consider. Two key questions that come to my mind are: is the Canadian policy of prohibition working and how harmful is marijuana relative to other substances?

Almost everybody knows that many Canadians, ranging from adolescents to elderly adults, use marijuana recreationally despite its prohibition. According to an article in the Oct. 30 issue of the Globe and Mail, the marijuana trade in British Columbia alone, of which about 70 per cent is exported to California, generates approximately $4 billion annually in revenue. Moreover, many of those who don’t use it, such as myself, simply don’t believe that society should prohibit its use.

Given that tens of thousands, maybe millions of Canadians use marijuana and do no harm to others as a consequence of their use, prohibition and criminalization clearly don’t make sense. Yet massive amounts of public dollars are invested in prohibition to little effect. Obviously, the so-called “War on Drugs” is an abject failure.

A major plank in the prohibition platform is the belief that decriminalizing marijuana will increase its use. However, marijuana has been sold in coffee shops in the Netherlands since the 1970s. Yet about 20 per cent of the adult population has experimented with it, whereas 42 per cent of U.S. adults have tried marijuana in a society that zealously prohibits it. In addition, as last week’s column indicated, Portugal has seen a decrease in consumption with decriminalization. In other words, there is little evidence to support the prohibitionists’ belief.

What we do know is harmful to society is the fact that those involved in organized crime distribute and sell marijuana. Eradicating the criminal element in sales and distribution by legalizing and regulating marijuana surely would be more beneficial than maintaining the current regimen. In fact, many observers agree that if the drug is legalized, production costs and risks associated with the use of marijuana will decrease substantially.

Besides, legalization and regulation would generate employment opportunities for gardeners, electricians and “coffee-shop” proprietors, at whose shops marijuana could be purchased and consumed. Furthermore, if marijuana were available for public consumption, governments could tax it, just like alcohol, to increase tax revenues.

But what about the health issues that surround marijuana use? When one compares the medically harmful effects of marijuana to other substances, the irrational nature of Canada’s policy on marijuana becomes blatantly obvious. Medically, marijuana is less addictive and poses substantially less overall harm than long-term, intensive consumption of alcohol or tobacco. Yet these substances are legal, highly regulated and taxed.

In Britain, clearer thinking about substances, including marijuana, is apparent. Firstly, the British College of Physicians endorses legal reform of marijuana use. Secondly, on Nov. 1 the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in Britain published a report in the medical journal, The Lancet, in which it ranked the degree of harm of common drugs. When considering harm to oneself and to society, British experts identified alcohol as by far the most harmful substance, followed by heroin and crack cocaine; marijuana ranked very low on the list.

What these British results mean is that if Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments classified substances according to their medically identified harmful effects, the Canadian system of drug classification would have to change radically, assuming there was political will to do so. But the reality is that none of the major political parties in Canada forthrightly addresses the irrationality of public policy on marijuana.

So, when the next federal election comes around, ask the local candidates what their position is on legalizing and regulating marijuana. Let’s hope that at least one candidate will stand for a rational drug policy of legalization and regulation. Such a policy would benefit everybody by reducing the costs to society presently incurred in the health care and criminal justice systems.