Pot Prohibition: Problems and the Need for Policy Reform

Matteo Pirri

Citing high usage rates, positive (or at least largely ambivalent) public attitudes toward its consumption, and an emerging global reformation regarding its illegality, a story published in the Toronto Star in January of this year maintained that “2014 [is] poised to go to pot.” Yet despite these popular trends, nine months later, there has been little action on the legalization of recreational marijuana in either the political or public realm of Canadian policy discourse.

The illegality and criminalization of marijuana continues to exist as one of the biggest ‘elephants in the room’ – hallucinated or otherwise – with regard to the country’s criminal drug policies and laws. Despite its status as a prohibited substance, many Canadians produce and consume the drug: well over a third (39.4 per cent) claim to have used marijuana at least once in their lifetime. Usage rates among Canadian teenagers are the highest in the developed world, with about 28 per cent having used the drug in the past year. Marijuana is the most popular illegal substance in the country and is second only to alcohol in terms of mind-altering substances consumed.

Public opinion in support of the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana is also notably high. In a 2013 Forum Research Inc. survey, more than two thirds (69 per cent) of survey respondents either supported decriminalization for small amounts of marijuana or outright legalization and taxation of the drug. Despite its continued illegality, marijuana use has become so pervasive and common it has arguably reached a degree of normalcy in Canadian society.

While the federal government is taking measures to relax laws related to the production and consumption of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the possession, trafficking, production and distribution of the drug for recreational consumption remains illegal. Canada’s prohibition of cannabis dates back to 1923 – an outlawing based largely on grounds of moral panic, according to a 2002 Senate committee report on illegal drugs. While shifting public attitudes has led to recent cries of support by both the Liberal and New Democratic Parties, decision-makers have yet to revisit the issue in any significant way.

Complacency towards Canada’s pot prohibition has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars in law enforcement, and billions of dollars in lost tax revenue – and the money is continuing to bleed. The Senate has estimated that between $300-$500 million has been spent on the justice system to enforce and prosecute marijuana-related incidents, and conservative estimates peg the industry as being worth approximately $6 billion, most of which flows into illegal grey and black markets.

This is not to say that marijuana prohibition and enforcement is completely without merit. Setting aside the loose moral justifications for the drug’s initial ban, there are some harms associated with use of the cannabis: marijuana smoke is a particularly harmful thing to ingest as it often contains tar and other cancer-causing chemicals, and the drug itself can impair an individual’s co-ordination. It has also recently been linked to a greater likelihood of suicide among teenagers. But the severity of the negative health effects associated with marijuana consumption remains contested, and the drug has largely proven to be no more harmful in either a personal or social perspective than other, legal substances.

Given the drug’s relatively high usage rates, the multi-million dollar cost associated with its continued prohibition, the lack of evidence demonstrating severe negative health effects associated with its consumption, and the growing cultural attitude of normalization surrounding its use, it is clear that Canadian politicians ought to rethink the country’s outdated stance. And policy-makers do not have to look far to see how marijuana’s legalization and regulation can serve the interest of the public good: both Colorado and Washington State have recently legalized and regulated marijuana production and consumption, and both jurisdictions are reaping the positive economic and social returns of doing so.

The experiment in Colorado in particular has succeeded in capturing widespread public attention. In the first five months of 2014 alone, Colorado has made $15.3 million in tax revenue on the recreational marijuana sector. While this figure may not seem outstanding, the economic activity associated with marijuana as a new industry – including not just sales of the drug but various ancillary goods and services – is estimated to be much more significant. The state is also estimated to be saving $12-$60 million per year on law enforcement. While it would be difficult to attribute Colorado’s recent economic success solely to changes in marijuana laws, it certainly did not hurt. The legalization of marijuana in the state has also been accompanied with a 10.1 per cent decrease in overall crime and a 5.2 per cent drop in violent crime.

The above data should be taken with a grain of salt as both Colorado and Washington only recently begun the legal production and sale of recreational marijuana; hard data that speaks to the true economic and social ramifications of this policy decision has yet to materialize. Yet the initial trends are largely positive. Canadian politicians and policy-makers would do well to reconsider Canada’s steadfast prohibition on the recreational use of the drug. To continue to ignore the prospective economic and social benefits associated with more relaxed marijuana laws is dopey policy indeed.

Matteo Pirri is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance and a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Public Policy & Governance Review. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Toronto.