Stoning Sacred Cows: The news that the government can’t even keep drugs out of prison should prompt a rethink of prohibition.

Commentary, Civil Liberties, David Seymour


Back in university at the quadrangle I had my favourites and my enemies. One favourite was a Member of Parliament who represented a very conservative riding yet held very liberal views, at least on cannabis law reform. Every time he spoke on campus, his opponents would attempt to flush out his drug views, and every time he would knock them out of the park.
“Your mind is how you experience the world,” he would pronounce, “and I can’t see why anyone would want to dull the one chance they get to experience it using chemicals.” And then he would turn on a dime: “But let’s be honest, this government I’m serving can’t even keep cannabis out of prisons. Even in a tiny area guarded with guns, barbed wire, and four metre high concrete walls, we can’t enforce the drug laws. Who here really thinks we can keep cannabis out of our sparsely populated country while respecting peoples’ privacy and freedom of movement?”
Recent media coverage in Saskatchewan has reported that governments really can’t keep cannabis out of prisons, while sources from the conservative C2C Journal to the neo-Marxist This magazine have recently published arguments similar to that made by my soap box hero.   In a thoughtful C2C article entitled “the Price of Pot Prohibition” Peter Jaworski gives a feel for the effectiveness of cannabis prohibition:   A 2002 Senate Special Report found that around 800 tonnes of cannabis circulate in Canada, yet authorities seized only 50 tonnes, or six per cent, in 2006. Notwithstanding the possibility there was some dramatic change in the circulation numbers in 2006 as compared to 2002, it seems prohibition is to the cannabis trade as flies are to elephants: annoying but mostly irrelevant.
Indeed, 17 per cent of adult Canadians report having used cannabis in the past year, despite it being illegal. Cigarettes are available at every corner store and the tobacco smoking rate is reported by the Canadian Cancer Society at 18 per cent. Prohibition is hardly stopping people from using cannabis.
“Aha,” my quadrangle enemies would say, “if that’s how many people smoke pot now, imagine if it was legal! Legalisation would be implicit endorsement by the state, and the problem would get much worse than it is already.” 
Then again, the United States (where 12.2 per cent use cannabis) is the home of the war on drugs and has an estimated half million people in prison for drug offenses. Meanwhile in The Netherlands (5.4 per cent) people are able to legally buy and smoke cannabis in public.
Not only is prohibition ineffectual though, it is also damaging. So long as cannabis is illegal but common, there will be an industry where people can’t access the police and court system to enforce contracts and protect their property. You can hardly report to the police that your runner ran off with your cannabis, or tell a judge that your grower has breached his contract. As a result, contracts and property rights in the drug business are enforced in much the same way as they are in the wider economy of Somalia; by people taking the law into their own hands.
Worse still, that burden of lawlessness in not spread evenly across society. While it may comfort middle- class parents to know drugs are illegal, it is less well-to-do kids who are tempted by gangs riding high with profits from the dangerous but lucrative business of dealing drugs outside the law. If illegal activity is most appealing to those with the least to lose in the formal economy, then creating a dangerous black market through prohibition is inequitably harmful.  Society would more equitably confront the drug problem openly and under the rule of law.
Finally, economic projections are notoriously inaccurate, but the best ones we have suggest prohibition is a bad deal. Based on current usage and values, Jaworski estimates that a tax on legal cannabis could generate between one and three billion dollars, plus half a billion dollars saved from not having to enforce prohibition. For perspective, raising GST by one percentage point would raise about three billion dollars.
Based on work by the Canadian Centre for Substance abuse, the “social” costs of healthcare and lost productivity from cannabis can be estimated at approximately half a billion dollars currently. Legalisation could double usage (since Canada already has the highest usage rates in the industrialised world, this seems unlikely), but the country would still be richer thanks to the tax revenue and enforcement reductions.
It may just be time to kill the sacred cow of prohibition.