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Time to end ganja prohibition

By James Bow

I was up late Tuesday night. Yes, I may be a Canadian by birth, but my wife is American, as are my in-laws, so I’ve come to care passionately about American politics. More than that, the United States has a profound influence on our lives, so it’s no surprise that the world held its breath last night.

But, for me, the re-election of Barack Obama wasn’t the most remarkable outcome of the election. Six little-known initiatives were passed that could have profound impact on America and the world at large. In Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and the state of Washington, propositions favouring same-sex marriage passed by clear margins. In what used to be a fractious debate, more Americans appear to accept that same-sex couples should enjoy the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. They are moving on with their lives. This is a good thing.

Also intriguingly, the states of Colorado and Washington passed referendums legalizing marijuana — not just for medical use, but recreational use as well. This sets the stage for a conflict between these states and the federal government as, at the federal level, the use of marijuana is still illegal.

Canada used to see itself as more progressive than its southern neighbour. We got as far as looking at decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. But the momentum toward full legalization halted once Stephen Harper became prime minister.

Make no mistake: I have never used marijuana and don’t intend to. I will go ballistic if I catch my daughters smoking in our house (tobacco or marijuana). But our prohibition against marijuana strikes me as the craziest aspect of our utterly ineffectual War on Drugs.

There is a world of difference between marijuana and crystal methamphetamine, and yet we treat the two the same. Morphine is a highly dangerous drug. Its use is tightly controlled, but it is still legal because of its medical benefits.

Marijuana is treated as something worse, though evidence suggests it is a benign drug that helps cancer patients curb nausea and maintain their weight through chemotherapy treatments.

Drugs are dangerous, but there is a range here that our legal framework isn’t respecting. Tobacco is more addictive than marijuana, and alcohol is more dangerous, and yet both are legal.

I think our prohibition against drugs would have more credibility if we only banned what was actually dangerous. Voters in Colorado and Washington seem to believe that marijuana is safe enough to be legalized. Canada should follow suit.

Not only would this take the drug out of the hands of the criminal syndicates, it would allow us to regulate its use, relying on current infrastructure around cigarettes to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids under 19. It would also allow us to tax marijuana use.

Peter Jaworski, writing for the libertarian publication C2C Journal, estimates that legalizing and taxing marijuana the same way as cigarettes could net Canada as much as $2 billion each year. These numbers are based on multiple sources, including Health Canada and the Fraser Institute.

This doesn’t include the savings that come from realigning our law enforcement to focus on more serious matters, and refraining from jailing people who happen to be in possession of a joint.

In the end, which is preferable — a marijuana user paying to run your child’s school, or you paying to build the marijuana user’s jail cell?

After decades of fighting an unbending War on Drugs, the time has come for an honest look on what this policy has gotten us. And in the case of marijuana, I think the time has come for another end to prohibition.

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James Bow is a writer and a father of two in Kitchener. You can follow him online at bowjamesbow.ca or on Twitter at @jamesbow.

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