Apparently the devil is in the details when it comes to Justin Trudeau’s plan to legalize the devil’s weed.
In the last federal election, the Liberals promised that if they came to power they would end a century of prohibition and introduce a regime to provide for the restricted sale of marijuana in Canada.
It has now been almost a year since this government took office and a casual observer of politics might be forgiven if they saw no action being taken on this file. Perhaps they have already concluded that it was yet another broken election promise — a cheap gimmick designed to get out the youth vote, perhaps.
But progress is being made, albeit slowly.
The Liberals have indicated that they intend to introduce legislation in the spring of 2017. In the meantime, they have appointed a task force to study the issue and report back to the government.
The reality that the Trudeau government has faced is that legalizing marijuana means making some complex decisions about what a legal regime looks like and consulting with a number of people and groups who are not as sold on the idea as the prime minister is himself.
And those voices are pushing to make whatever regime emerges as restrictive as possible and even to delay legalization to some undefined future date if possible.
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, for example, would like to see legalization put off until police have the tools they need to test stoned drivers. The reality, however, is that while scientists are making strides, precise technology doesn’t exist quite yet. All the tools we have now can tell us is that a driver used marijuana at some point in the past and not that they are intoxicated at that moment.
This shortcoming is why statistics showing an uptick in the number of drivers with marijuana in their bloodstream in Colorado, which recently legalized marijuana itself, are not as alarming as they might sound at first. And there is an incoherence in believing that all those adults who, for years, were motivated to abstain by the illegality of marijuana would suddenly begin breaking the law by driving stoned once the drug is legalized.
Waiting for stoned driving detection technology to be developed could take years (if it is even possible), which puts the organization at odds with the Liberals’ election promise to proceed with legalization during its first term in office. By calling for a deferral of legalization, MADD is effectively calling for a continuation of the status quo for the foreseeable future.
The Canadian Medical Association recently weighed in with its own recommendations. Highlighting the various health risks of marijuana — especially for young people with developing brains — the CMA has called for a very restrictive regime. Like MADD, the CMA is effectively calling for legalization to be deferred to a later date by suggesting that the government undertake “pilot projects” in certain jurisdictions before rolling the plan out nationwide. The CMA is also calling for various limits, including a cap on THC content (the active ingredient in marijuana), a ban on edible cannabis products, and limits on how much of the drug one person can buy at a time. The CMA also wants to set the legal age to buy marijuana at 21, above the legal age to buy alcohol and cigarettes.
And while many of these are reasonable, albeit debatable, recommendations, what has struck me most about the tone of the commentary on this issue is how often parties seem to slip into talking as if the government is proposing to unleash some sort of new drug on a society that has never encountered it before.
This is, of course, a fallacy. The choice Canada faces isn’t between marijuana and no marijuana. That isn’t an option before the government. Prohibition has utterly failed to accomplish its goals. Marijuana is a fact of life in Canada. If millions of Canadians were not already consuming pot this isn’t a discussion we would even be having as a society.
Postponing legalization would not make the problems associated with marijuana go away. If the Trudeau Liberals opted not to pursue legalization, police would still be vexed by the problem of how to combat stoned drivers who are out there on the roadways at this very moment. And teens would continue to get their hands on large quantities of potent marijuana from unscrupulous drug dealers who don’t check ID.
Critics will counter that legal marijuana will make the problem more widespread, but the evidence doesn’t necessarily bear that out. In Colorado, where marijuana has been legal for several years (under a relatively liberal regime at that) state health officials have found no significant increase in the number of teens using marijuana.
And while some increase in usage post-legalization among law-abiding adults is possible, the harm of that increase has to be balanced against the massive social damage that prohibition has caused. Prohibition has created a vast black market for marijuana that helps fund organized crime, which turns to violence to settle scores. The damage caused to otherwise law-abiding citizens by the imposition of criminal records is difficult to quantify, and the lack of controls mean easy accessible pot for teenagers.
It is always important when talking about policy options to compare any proposed change to the reality in which we live, and not the world of some clean-cut 1950s TV show. We do not live in an idealized, drug-free utopia. We live in a society where marijuana is easily available and where use by teens and adults is already widespread. The world is messy and it behooves those who weigh in on this issue to remember that.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.