By Trevor Busch
Despite the protestations of some of our municipal politicians — some of whom appear to believe they have a chance of blocking federal legislation tabled by a party with a majority in the House of Commons — the legalization of cannabis in Canada is now almost a foregone conclusion.
Gleaning through some of the heavy-handed rhetoric that was uttered forth from various lips in past weeks, an observant reader might have concluded that many of these statements were saturated with well-sounding window dressing about efforts to prevent legalization, rather than offering up anything in the way of a concrete plan as to how this might actually be achieved.
With all due respect to our local paragons of municipal virtue, it remains unclear how a handful of voices raised in the municipal wilderness of Western Canada will hope to put a dent in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise, especially considering the majority stranglehold his party currently maintains on the House of Commons. Taking a moral stance on the issue is all well and good, but suggesting you might actually have a snowball’s chance in hell of blocking federal legislation of this magnitude in a majority environment in Ottawa? Good luck with that one, gentlemen.
The federal Conservatives have suggested implementing an extended period of decriminalization prior to legalization to “work out the kinks” and make sure legislation is addressing concerns and problems smoothly before transitioning to a legal environment. Which sounds good in principal, but decriminalization carries with it its own stigmas and problems.
The Liberals are probably wary of decriminalization, because it largely amounts to a state-stamped admission of failure, and governments never like to admit failure. The same could be said about law enforcement — the substance is still prohibited, but we’re removing the criminalization of possession — we surrender. That’s an unenviable position to be maneuvered into for politicians or police officers alike, and probably explains why the appetite for decriminalization has not been besieged by an army of hungry apologists.
While it might prevent individuals from being slapped with a criminal record in the months, weeks, days, or even hours before legalization might be officially proclaimed (a criticism that has recently been levelled at the Liberals) decriminalization remains an admission of failure, while legalization can be sold as a positive move — taxation revenue, preventing the substance from being accessed by children through regulation, striking a blow against organized crime — which make it more attractive from a political perspective.
Frankly, any reform that changes the current failed efforts at prohibition would be a step in the right direction. Some Canadians might actually believe that the efforts of law enforcement to stem the cannabis tide have been largely successful; one suspects the majority, however, probably know better.
In some cases — certainly for youth under the age of 18 — accessing cannabis might be easier than acquiring alcohol. Whatever one’s viewpoint on the issue, it would be hard to defend against the criticism that marijuana prohibition — certainly in the sense of effective enforcement leading to the substance’s elimination from the black marketplace — has been an epic failure. Despite all the efforts that have been poured into prohibition over the decades — including a staggering mountain of taxpayer’s dollars — cannabis is, and remains, easily available to most Canadians with surprisingly little effort.
All of which makes cannabis prohibition — despite the lofty pronouncements of law enforcement and Parliamentary hawks in support of a ‘War on Drugs’ — something of a joke in the minds of many Canadians. Which might explain why a majority — close to 70 per cent in some recent polls — support the legalization of marijuana. In many cases, people across Canada from all walks of life have indicated they support legalization not necessarily because they’re interested in personal recreational use, but because the status quo with regard to enforcement and the various arguments in favour of regulation are making the idea harder and harder to refute.
And while countless billions continue to circle the bowl in an apparent failed effort to restrict cannabis, in a legal environment they might not end up descending to their doom. Re-targeting this cascade of capital to focus on restricting truly harmful substances — opioids like fentanyl, heroine, LSD, PCP, MDMA, morphine, you name it — could actually pay some real dividends in protecting the lives of citizens and putting offenders behind bars.
Some observers have suggested that the neighbourhood drug dealer — those Dr. Feelgoods who currently dispense illegal cannabis along with any number of other more harmful substances — are the true “gateway” to hard drug use. These individuals have a vested interest in introducing their customers to more harmful, habit-forming substances — an interest that is unlikely to be shared by the legitimate private storefronts and dispensaries in a legal cannabis environment.
One area of concern that still rankles many will be impaired driving enforcement, and the Liberals still have work to do in convincing many Canadians that pot-impaired drivers will not suddenly become an enormous menace in a legalized country. On the other hand, visions of an impaired populace barreling down the nation’s freeways like a latter-day version of Cheech and Chong are probably an exaggeration.
Making marijuana legal doesn’t suddenly mean 99 per cent of the population will be permanently stoned every day for the rest of their lives. Alcohol is legal — would anyone seriously argue that because of that fact the entire population is three sheets to the wind 24/7?
As for the municipalities, big questions are indeed going to need to be answered prior to legalization, and the Liberals have admittedly not given much time for that process to be completed. Judging by some of the public comments that have been made by councillors of the Municipal District and Town of Taber, these municipalities may make a move to restrict sale of cannabis throughout their jurisdictions prior to legalization.
That is, if present councils manage to survive an upcoming municipal election intact on Oct. 16, which is by no means a foregone conclusion. One suspects any potential municipal ban on cannabis sales could be a pivotal election issue in 2017.
And the idea carries with it problems right from inception. Though municipalities might be able to restrict the sale of cannabis, in a federal legal environment, they won’t be able to restrict use or possession. So taking a very public hardline on cannabis might pay some limited rewards at the polls, but it won’t do much to prevent a flow of cannabis into the jurisdiction if all an individual has to do is take a short drive down the highway to a legal municipality — which of course will enjoy all the financial benefits of business licensing, property taxes, and employment opportunities, while morally-objectionable municipalities would be denied this opportunity for entrepreneurship and a newfound revenue stream.
Some in the business world might tell you that mixing morality with economics can often result in an unpredictable brew usually not conducive to glowing bottom lines, and that ethics and profit margins are two sides of a very different coin.
The question citizens should be asking themselves in the lead up is at what point in a post-legal environment does an anti-marijuana stance become an anti-business stance?