Marijuana: The Reality

Most of the public discussion today focuses on legalization of marijuana, what the impact will be and how provinces and territories will manage the legislation. As the legislation winds itself through the parliamentary system we have heard a lot of talk, but I believe we should understand the impact and issues that we will face.Let's begin, as the saying goes, in the beginning. There has been, for many years, suggestions surrounding de-criminalization of marijuana, including by the previous Liberal government in 2003 and a recommendation from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police a few years ago, who recommended that it be reduced to a ticketing offence.In 2015, during the lead up to the Federal Election there was a commitment from Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau that a Liberal government would legalize marijuana if elected.  After the election, PM Trudeau set out to fulfill that commitment. I get it - it is a popular move and we are all frustrated that otherwise law-abiding people have received criminal records for possession in the past. So, the Government struck quickly, on June 30, 2016, by announcing the creation of a nine-member Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation.To be clear, the task force's mandate was not to look at the current legislation and make recommendations to the government on changes but rather “to consult and provide advice on the design of a new legislative and regulatory framework for legal access to cannabis, consistent with the Government's commitment to “legalize, regulate, and restrict access.”  At no time was their mandate to make recommendations on whether legalization was the right thing to do. In essence, the implementation team set out to consult with Canadians.Few, if any, would argue that our current legislation is not out of date. All too often we know people who have received criminal records for minor possession charges, impacting on people often for the rest of their lives. But, we should be careful about what we hope for.The Minister of Public Safety has stated that Canadian law enforcement spends two billion dollars annually to combat possession of marijuana. Since the legislation is specifically targeting recreational use, I suspect Minister Goodale is referring to minor possession charges. I would argue that little or no money is spent on such offences, due in part to the amount of work required to investigate and prosecute such offences and that most police officers don't want someone to have a criminal record for possession. The reality is that a person is more likely to be dealt with through the justice system for having an open bottle of beer than a joint.The pursuit of illegal marijuana will continue, regardless of legalization, as there is no expectation that the illicit weed will disappear. The provinces, municipalities and police agencies are arguing that they require more resources if the legalization legislation passes; they predict there will be no savings and that, if anything, the new regime could prove to be more costly.The illegal marijuana market will have to co-exist with any legal program as youth will not be legally permitted to purchase product and notably the proposed legislation increases the penalty for providing marijuana to someone under the age of 18 years to a maximum fourteen years in jail. Any suggestion that the black market will disappear are poorly-founded and are certainly not indicated in data in the U.S. states where marijuana sales are already legal. As well, indications are that legal marijuana prices will exceed the illegal market and that the THC (hallucinogenic) level will be half or less than what is available on the illicit market. Why would a user switch? It would not be for price nor quality - and although the government say people will switch to legal product simply because it is legal, one only has to look at the illegal tobacco market which constitutes a full one-third of the market.Data recently released from Colorado should concern all of us; traffic accident deaths involving marijuana have doubled; youth past month use has risen 12% (putting the state at number one in the U.S.); marijuana related hospitalization is up 72% and while most states have seen crime reducing, Colorado is up 11% (www.rmhidta.org).What I am arguing is that the police, medical specialists and scientific researchers do not feel we are ready. They disagree on the age being prescribed, and they are concerned about the naiveté regarding the impact it will have on illegal marijuana and regarding the issues surrounding personal growth options.I am asking that this legislation ensure that we are ready for whatever comes and assure Canadians that the future will not be less healthy than the past. Maybe we should research the addiction governments seem to have for more taxes, as that seems to be the most compelling issue for many right now.Vernon “Vern” White is a Canadian senator, and former chief of the Ottawa Police Service.