America is leading the way to liberal pot laws

One is best advised not to count chickens which have not yet hatched, but those who have long called for changes to this country's marijuana laws are understandably beginning to take an inventory of eggs on the farm.

One is best advised not to count chickens which have not yet hatched, but those who have long called for changes to this country’s marijuana laws are understandably beginning to take an inventory of eggs on the farm.

Two American states – Washington and Colorado – recently embarked on their own separate experiments with legalization, and early signs seem to support what proponents have been saying all along. Tax revenues are rolling in, social order has prevailed, kids are not running out in droves to buy pot with their allowance, and the sky has not fallen just yet.

More important, from a Canadian perspective, has been the White House’s hands-off approach to these moves. Within the American system, the federal government would be well within its legal rights to squash this nascent political experiment with the iron fist of the Drug Enforcement Agency but – so far at least – has decided to see how things go.

This is a major change for a federal government that only few years ago – during the Barack Obama era no less – was regularly carrying out raids of medicinal marijuana dispensaries in California. This change in attitude is promising for legalization advocates in Canada. Historically, one of the strongest arguments against any move to liberalize Canada’s marijuana laws has been the possibility of blow-back from the Americans. But if the U.S. government is willing to allow change within its own union, maybe, just maybe, it would not get too worked up about a new regime on its northern border.

All three major federal parties in Canada have stated an intention to relax our laws to one extent or another. Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party would go the furthest and have promised to fully legalize and regulate the drug. Under the Liberal plan marijuana would be legal but regulated and subject to most of the same restrictions as alcohol and tobacco.

Thomas Mulcair (desperate not to acknowledge that the Liberals might actually be right for once) has taken a small rhetorical step back from the NDP’s historically laissez faire attitude but is still promising decriminalization. That means the possession and sale of marijuana would still be illegal but would not result in a criminal record for the user.

Decriminalization has the political advantage of appealing to those who want marijuana to be “out of sight and out of mind” (i.e. not for sale with my bottle of scotch at the local liquor store) but at the same time want to avoid the harsh and punitive effects of the status quo. Unfortunately, decriminalization does nothing to remove the violent criminal element from the market, and deprives society of the tax revenue it might otherwise collect.

The Conservatives have taken a somewhat confusing approach to the issue. On the one hand the party has released a rather pathetic series of “Reefer Madness”-esque advertisements (that might be confused for parody if they weren’t deadly serious) attacking Trudeau’s proposal. The Conservatives have made clear their intention to make Trudeau’s legalization pledge an election issue. But they also have been quietly murmuring about cutting their losses and introducing their own “ticketing” regime, under which the police would be able to issue a ticket for simple possession rather than go through the rigmarole of laying charges the old fashioned way.

All of these shifts among our political leaders reflect a wider change in public attitude. A recent nationwide poll had fully 70 per cent of Canadians supporting either legalization or decriminalization.

It is not hard to see why attitudes have shifted. As a matter of policy, the prohibition of marijuana has been an unmitigated failure, not unlike our country’s brief flirtation with alcohol prohibition in the early twentieth century. Prohibition has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, saddled thousands of Canadians with a criminal record that limits their work and travel opportunities, and pushed a lucrative market into the hands of organized crime, all without making so much as a dent in consumption. Despite all of these efforts, marijuana use in Canada continues to be among the highest in the developed world and the drug is widely and readily available on the black market. It is hard to think of a less successful government policy.

Real change is at least an election away. Stephen Harper’s government has been clear that his government will not go beyond a “ticketing” regime so for the time being it may be best to scramble up those eggs rather than counting on any chickens. But there is a clear sense that a move towards a more liberal approach to marijuana use may not be too far away.

Kyle Carruthers is born and raised Yukoner who lives and practices law in Whitehorse.