The federal government slipped its marijuana bill into the House the day before Good Friday, with almost no one around to ask questions. The government itself had few answers to the more pressing issues, leaving most important matters to be determined later, by other levels of government. So in the same spirit, herewith various question that do not appear to have adequate answers.
What is the social good that marijuana legalization is intended to achieve? The arguments for legalization — removing the burden on the criminal justice system, not impeding future career prospects with a youthful criminal conviction, removing the scope for organized crime — are negative in nature, getting rid of various supposed bad things. But what is the good that we can expect from making marijuana more readily available? Is there any? Can we expect greater labour productivity, higher educational achievement, enhanced physical fitness, a lower carbon footprint, a better equalization system?
From the armed forces to universities to big banks to telcos, mental health initiatives are near ubiquitous. It is widely acknowledged that pot-smoking by teenagers compromises mental health for a significant proportion of them. That will certainly increase with easier marijuana access. Is that just the price we pay for the ambiguous and unspecified benefits?
Perhaps for the above reason, the government is determined that making marijuana easily available to 18-year-olds should not increase access to 17-year-olds. A popular way for a 16-year-old to get liquor is for his 20-year-old brother to buy it for him. If same brother now passes on a bag of weed with the mickey of vodka, he could be subject to 14 years in prison. Are the police and the courts plausibly going to enforce such penalties?
Canada’s native chiefs are hot for easy pot. Last December the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations unanimously supported a resolution to ask the government for “priorities and incentives to ensure that First Nations are given the opportunity to participate and benefit fully from the development of this new and emerging sector.”
Legal marijuana will be subject to some excise tax, like cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline. Aboriginal Canadians are exempt from such taxes, making reservations good places to get cheap cigs and gas, and ideal places to run illegal smuggling operations. In Ontario, it is estimated that at least a quarter of all cigarettes are produced tax-free on reservations and sold on the black market. How will the health, education and employment of native Canadians be enhanced by adding cheap weed to the “industries” reservations host?
Marijuana will be addictive for a certain proportion of users. Isn’t there a certain madness in expanding the range of addictive substances readily available in aboriginal communities?
“We are certainly not going to do anything that contributes to addictions,” says former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine, who has his own pot-producing company, now in the medical marijuana business, but no doubt with an eye to future expansion. “I, for certain, understand the huge challenges our community faces about addictions, but this is clearly not about that,” Fontaine said. What is it about then?
Is it perhaps possible that cannabis reform is being driven by something of a guilty conscience from a certain privileged class? Fabulously rich kids who graduate, say from McGill before spending a few winters snowboarding in Whistler, don’t have to worry about blotting their copybook with a pot conviction. The police don’t make trouble for them, lest any criminal unpleasantness impede taking up a future foreign assignment with McKinsey or PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the police do make trouble for those who are neither rich nor influential, and can’t get hired to drive a truck because of an inability to cross the border.
My colleague Andrew Coyne rightly observes that “how successful we are at taking the business away from organized crime will depend on the particular taxation model: you want to set the price just low enough to make it worthwhile for existing users to switch to legal sources, without setting it so low as to cause a major expansion in consumption.” Does anyone think that the bang-up job our various governments do on cigarette smuggling, health-care management and electricity prices breeds confidence that they are going to get the elasticities of demand and substitution effects right on cannabis?
Why does the government include in its cannabis package authorization for police “to demand breath samples of any drivers they lawfully stop, without first requiring that they have a suspicion that the driver has alcohol in their body”? That means that a police officer who stops me because my license plate registration sticker is expired can demand a breathalyzer just because he takes a dislike to me. Maybe he doesn’t like Catholics. Maybe he hated my last column. Why is this blatantly unconstitutional bodily search without cause being permitted? Is there a shortage of police harassment in Canada?
Anyone have answers?
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