Regulating Cannabis in Canada

Commentary, Culture Wars, Maxwell DeGroat, Regulation

Health Canada is consulting with Canadians on the regulation of marijuana.  With nearly half of its consulting time now elapsed, it seems only prudent to ask, what exactly the government wants us to comment on? Do they want us to question their stated objectives? Or perhaps, they want us to ask why they are being dishonest about their consultation process?

We are in the middle of an opioid crisis that has already killed thousands of Canadians, and that will likely kill thousands more.  Obviously, our experience with other drugs and even ordinary consumer products informs us that government regulations to protect public health by ensuring product safety and quality control are extremely important.  There is also a solid case to be made against burdening recreational cannabis users with criminal records and the criminal justice system with non-violent recreational cannabis users.

Yet in the public proposals these apparently sensible and straightforward considerations take second-billing to three reasons given by the Government.  Health Canada says the proposed Cannabis Act will:

  • Restrict youth access to cannabis;
  • Protect young people from enticements to use cannabis; and
  • Impose criminal penalties on people caught violating the law, in particular people illegally importing or exporting cannabis or providing it to minors.

But isn’t that what we have in place already?

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what more the government could do. The last government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act, already stiffened the penalties for trafficking marijuana by adding mandatory minimum sentencing provisions to The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, including two years for people convicted of dealing drugs near school grounds.  To date, one of these provisions has been struck down by the Supreme Court. But, nevertheless, the government is still talking as if it will be “tough on crime”.

It is only government wishful thinking to expect young people to become less interested in consuming cannabis once it is legal. Granted, it is not impossible to imagine that young people may not be interested in smoking pot, but statistically highly improbable. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of 15 to 17 year olds smoking tobacco dropped from 20% of the age cohort to 10%.  But this is hardly surprising given that smoking tobacco became illegal in nearly all public places over that same period. At the same time, there has been a relentless intensification of anti-smoking propaganda directed at young people.

So far, there’s little indication of a similar reduction in the popularity of using marijuana, If anything, more young people will experiment with marijuana when it is legal than when it was illegal. In fact, recent research shows that marijuana use among 15 to 17 year olds holding steady at 20%.  Meanwhile, with more adults possessing legal cannabis, ease of access for their kids will only increase.

The government has dishonestly omitted another objective, the increase tax revenues from the legal sale of weed. This could easily make legal cannabis uncompetitive with the black market weed. The  case of R. v. Comeau, currently being heard by the Supreme Court, has raised the hopes of free-marketeers for an end to state-run monopolies in Canada. In fact, the Comeau case could lower trade barriers within the country, force provincial monopolies like the LCBO to compete nationally. A potentially welcome victory for free market supporters, but potentially also a recipe for online free market with inadequate or no controls against youth access.

If this happens, the misperception currently informing the political push for legalization, that “the kids are all doing it anyway,” may become a reality, our vulnerable youth having access and using weed.  We don’t know yet what the consequences of such a societal shift would be, but we will soon find out.