Time to regulate marijuana


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Being in Arizona on a university campus and immersed in U.S. culture is fascinating generally, and especially so with regard to the debate about legalization and regulation of recreational use marijuana. I am currently teaching part time at Arizona State University as we develop a North American law degree program.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2015 (2926 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Being in Arizona on a university campus and immersed in U.S. culture is fascinating generally, and especially so with regard to the debate about legalization and regulation of recreational use marijuana. I am currently teaching part time at Arizona State University as we develop a North American law degree program.

What’s really interesting in the Arizona and American news generally is seeing both the language patterns that are being used in the narrative as well as the legislative and political machinations around the issue of marijuana use.

With Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia having made recreational use legal, many other states are having to address how they will react to increasing popular sentiment about the futility of prohibition.

The word legalization seems to have an implication of broad permissiveness that leaves many observers opposed to the idea. It opens the door to lunatics such as journalist Nancy Grace arguing legalization means marijuana would be as available as Twinkies are to young children at the local convenience store.

Moreover, the word legalization appears to also imply approval or even a subtle endorsement of the use of recreational marijuana.

This contorted framing and condemnation of the word legalization is often done by people whose recreational vice, namely alcohol, which was also once prohibited, is almost a badge of sophistication. They are the ones who love their Napa Chardonnay but preach fire and damnation about Hindu Kush and somehow miss the fact alcohol is far more widely available and legal for potential misuse by children than is marijuana.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve invested in a marijuana company and stand to gain personally from the reduction or elimination of prohibition. Probably like many of you, I have used (and inhaled) marijuana occasionally and have never considered its illegality to be relevant to the rest of an otherwise law-abiding life. In the United States, some legislators and proponents have seen the need to change their approach from the word legalization to regulation. It’s a distinction that may be an important consideration for how we frame the debate in Canada, because no one is suggesting marijuana for recreational use should be sold in an unregulated way.

It needs regulation for quality and strength, just like alcohol. It needs regulation for who can sell it and where, just like alcohol. It needs regulation as to who can buy it at what age, just like alcohol. It needs a system of packaging and consumer information, including appropriate warnings. It needs a regime of enforcement and penalties for those who don’t follow the regulations. And the list goes on.

Furthermore, when you start to think of it in terms of regulation rather than legalization, people who continue to traffic illegally in marijuana should face more severe criminal penalties under the Controlled Substances and Drugs Act.

One of the inherent objectives of regulation has to be to try and eliminate the black market for the stuff, so it’s probably a good thing if the price of playing in that black market becomes even more prohibitive.

I like the way legalization has morphed into regulation, and it might provide the right kind of political language our governments and public can accept.

Regulation isn’t an endorsement. It accepts that there may be harm if used by some people and therefore needs control. It doesn’t mean government is telling people to consume marijuana just like alcohol regulation isn’t a call to drink liquor. It’s a tool to control behaviour in a way that’s consistent with a desirable or necessary policy outcome, and of course, it’s the way governments can levy and collect various taxes.

On the legislative front, Americans have the ability to put various questions on the ballot when they go to the polls. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use because the voters there told the state government to do it. Imagine that — the people actually have a voice! According to a Forum Research poll last August, about 66 per cent of Canadians support either decriminalization or legalization, and that number could easily grow in the context of a government actually describing the parameters of a rational regulatory scheme.

Once the voters have spoken, it then becomes very difficult for state legislatures to change the law, and this has many politicians concerned that they get locked into a regime that can’t be easily modified as they gain experience and want or need to make legitimate tweaks to the rules.

In Arizona and several other states, legislators are starting to wonder whether its better to get ahead of the issue by taking the matter into their own hands and enacting state legislation that would be within their control rather than waiting for the voters to force the issue on the ballot.

It’s very refreshing to see this kind of democracy in action compared with the almost petrified system we have in Canada once our elections are over. If 60 per cent of Canadians think we should legalize or decriminalize marijuana, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. In the United States, if the people’s voice is loud enough, it rules, and although there’s always a risk of mob mentality, there’s something great about real-time democracy.

Canadians seem to be OK with legal access to marijuana. We can learn a lot from the experience in the United States about how to establish a proper tone and scheme of regulation.

It’s time to do it.


David Asper is a Winnipeg lawyer and businessman.

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