Should BC legalize marijuana?
By Sharon Miki, Editor in chief
As much as we might like to think that our beautiful province is best known for its sumptuous landscapes and lush green terrain, the reality is that British Columbia is renowned for its marijuana. Still, while “BC bud” may be coveted around the world, it is still an illegal substance in our province. With two US states voting last month to decriminalize the substance—and recent polls indicating that the majority of Canadians are in favour of legalization—would it be in the best interest of British Columbians to follow suit?
At first glance, the issue of legalization of pot might seem trivial: why should it matter how easy or difficult it is for stoners to acquire their drug of choice? Hazy pop culture pot representations like Cheech and Chong and Harold and Kumar may have made the issue seem frivolous to the masses. But, on the contrary, the British Columbia marijuana industry should matter to us all—the truth is that there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent purchasing on the substance within the province, there is an organized drug trade built around the manufacture and distribution of the substance, and there are a myriad of government resources that are dedicated to the monitoring and policing its existence.
Regardless of which side you take on the matter, the fact is that marijuana is big business in BC. A recent study published in the November issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy (IJDP) estimated that people in the province currently spend between $443-million and $564-million annually on pot—a startlingly high amount, which researchers estimate could equate to about $2.5 billion in government revenues (via factors like tax and licensing) over a five-year period.
To some, the sheer amount of possible tax revenue based on current provincial pot purchases may induce Scrooge McDuck-esque squeals of joy. However, the financial implications of legalization are not so cut and dry: the amount of money that British Columbians are currently spending on pot is based on the current system of pot selling—that is, illegal. With a government-regulated infrastructure, the price of pot could change drastically, as there would no longer be a mark up to account for the illicit nature of the substance, and as there would no longer be a financial need to compensate drug growers, transporters, and dealers for the criminal risk of procuring the substance to customers.
On the other hand, while these factors could drive down the retail price of marijuana, legalizing the substance may encourage more people who may have abstained from purchasing illegal substances invest in pot on a regular basis.
Still, even with possible fluctuations in price or demand, the IJDP research indicates that people in this province are spending money on marijuana—and taking this money away from dangerous and unregulated organized crime (which controls about 85% of the pot market in our province, according to policing agencies) and putting it into government programs certainly seems like a venture worth investigating.
So, if legalizing marijuana has the potential to bolster the economy of the province, why haven’t we?
Big change has big consequences
While the headline numbers in the IJDP research may make legalization seem like a fiscal no-brainer, taking this money from the hands of criminals could aversely affect more than just organized crime. Although pot activists decry the current use of public funds on the war on drugs—Vancouver-based advocate Jodie Emery spoke out against the cost of marijuana prohibition on CTV News last month, criticizing that the “tax payers are spending millions and millions of dollars every year on drug law enforcement, court costs, prison…”—it also seems that the money spent fighting pot use has created many jobs within the province. If marijuana were no longer illegal, it could have adverse economic repercussions as those employed to oppose marijuana could find themselves suddenly out of work. While one could argue that the tax revenue generated from legal sales could also generate new initiatives and sources of employment, there would undoubtedly be far-reaching consequences in a variety of sectors.
Legalizing marijuana would also have massive political consequences. Despite the majority of Canadians now supporting the idea of legalization (an Angus Reid poll released on November 29 attested to 57 per cent of Canadians and 60 per cent of British Columbians being in favour of legalizing marijuana), many politicians have publically expressed resolute views in opposition. Prime Minister Stephen Harper firmly stated last year that, “No, it will not happen under our government…We’re very concerned about the spread of drugs in the country and the damage it’s doing and as you know we have legislation before the House [of Commons] to crack down.” A change in a viewpoint this strong would require a major shift in the politics of our highest leaders.
Could we handle it?
Taking money, crime and politics off the table, the question of whether or not to legalize marijuana in British Columbia often comes down to social issues. After a lifetime of prohibition of the substance, many members of the community perceive marijuana as illicit and inherently bad.
One problem is that many people view weed as a “gateway drug” that leads people to use harder substances like cocaine, heroin, or crystal meth. Though the amount of weed being purchased in this province might suggest that marijuana use is fairly commonplace in BC—whereas hard drug use is not—this long-standing and long-taught idea could be difficult to change for many citizens.
Another issue with legalizing weed is that, unlike with alcohol, it is difficult to measure if it is being used dangerously or irresponsibly. Marijuana can affect a user’s judgment, and there is no quick test that can be used to accurately analyze someone’s marijuana use (like a breathalyzer test would determine how much alcohol a driver has consumed) when driving. If legalized, this could pose an issue for public safety.
Snuffing out a solution
The decision to legalize marijuana in British Columbia is not clear-cut. What is clear, however, is that the issue is nearing a breaking point—two out of three respondents in the Angus Reid poll feel that the “war on drugs” is a failure, and, while the majority is slim, more people in this province feel that pot should be decriminalized than don’t. As more and more of our neighbours, like Washington, make changes to the status quo position on pot, perhaps it would be worthwhile for more of the community to look beyond our long-engrained views and consider all sides to the story.
Image from “Let’s Toke About It” (2012).