Marijuana vote a game-changer for Canada

Stephen Harper may be dismissive about state votes in favour of legalizing marijuana last week, but they set the stage for a game changer

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be dismissive about the fact that the states of Washington and Colorado voted in favour of legalizing marijuana last week, but they have set the stage for a game changer, however complicated.

Ironically, last Tuesday’s vote on the day of the U.S. election fell on the same day that the Harper government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act with tougher drug possession laws came into effect.

Whether Harper likes it or not, individual states in the U.S. are inching forward while Canada’s drug laws are going backwards.

The game changer is that Colorado and Washington are the first states to vote in favour of the sale and use of small amounts of recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana laws have existed in some states for well over a decade (California was the first to legalize medical marijuana use in 1996) and Canada has a formal system to regulate the medicinal use of the plant. In the U.S., 18 states and the District of Columbia (over one third of the country) now have similar laws in play. In 2011, the medical marijuana business was worth US$1.7 billion and growing.

Granted, enacting the voting outcome in Colorado and Washington is going to be a complicated and probably lengthy process for policy makers. They have to find ways to reconcile state law with U.S. federal law under which marijuana is illegal. But the forces of change to repeal prohibition have been nipping at the heels of policy makers for decades

Prohibition doesn’t work. It didn’t work during the prohibition era outlawing alcohol (1920-1933) and it is a complete failure now. All it has done is drive drug use underground and put countless millions of dollars into the hands of criminals who incite violence on city streets in their ongoing turf wars. Millions of dollars from the public purse have been spent on law enforcement and the justice and legal systems to stop something clearly unstoppable.

Meanwhile, people addicted to hard drugs suffer devastating health consequences. And just for the record, the use of marijuana is not a proven gateway drug to the use of hard drugs. Thousands who enjoy pot socially never go on to using heroin or cocaine.

Legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana would put those commercial dollars into the hands of licensed growers, sellers and government regulators just like alcohol. Tax revenues could be invested into broad-spectre health needs of Canadians battling drug addiction issues at all levels, helping them return to productive lives.

As much as PM Harper is stubbornly against decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, he’s going to have to recognize that popular opinion is shifting away from policy crackdowns to new, more efficient and effective ways to deal with the soft drug issue.

An Angus Reid poll conducted in mid-October for Stop the Violence BC found that 75 per cent of B.C. respondents support regulating and taxing marijuana, a jump of six per cent from polls a year ago. This latest poll mirrors the dissatisfaction for the status quo across political, social, economic and regional lines and underscores the degree to which the mindset of the Harper government is out of touch with the will of British Columbians.

Stop the Violence BC is a coalition of law enforcement officials, legal experts, medical and public health officials, and academic experts concerned about the links between marijuana prohibition and the growth of organized crime. A report released last winter concluded that increased funding for marijuana law enforcement fails to decrease production, supply, potency or use. In fact, research suggests regulation could actually reduce pot use in young people.

Washington and Colorado voters have taken a progressive step forward. Now it’s our turn.

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