National Post: Legalize pot — just don’t let the government monopolize it

All roads currently lead to the marijuana’s eventual liberalization: both the NDP and the Liberal Party support some form of decriminalization or legalization.

A change of government, then, will see the country embrace some less draconian approach to the drug.

(The Greens support liberalization, too, of course, although God help us if they take power.)

The biggest mistake any of these parties could make, then — and sadly, the mostly likely one — would be to give the government a monopoly on the sale and production of cannabis.

When legal barriers on pot begin to fall, we’ll be presented with the opportunity to create common-sense regulation that avoids the pitfalls of our haphazard and counter-productive experiences with regulating alcohol.

Marijuana, once a little-known or accessible substance, was criminalized in Canada in 1923. This was around the same time that puritan groups successfully lobbied governments across North America to ban the sale and production of alcohol. Both substances were considered detrimental to public health, and lawmakers woefully believed that banning them would be in the interest of the common good.

Eventually, prohibition on alcohol — but not marijuana — slipped, and was replaced by state-dominated monopolies.

The motive behind the alcohol monopolies that exist in most provinces was that only the state could be responsible enough to control the sale of such a sinful product. The agencies responsible were able to limit supply, control prices, enforce regulation, and crack down on bootlegging.

Fast forward to today, and nearly all those responsibilities are gone. The monopolies are nothing but cash cows for desperate governments; the only goals they have are to sell more every year. If protecting the population from this vice was their real priority, state-run alcohol retailers like Quebec’s SAQ would not spend millions on marketing, nor would they constantly advertise their sales in an effort to up their profits.

State monopolies are only supposed to exist in areas where the free market fails to properly allocate resources. With alcohol, the rhetorical rationale used to defend the monopoly quickly became illegitimate. The need for a monopoly no longer exists.

All of this would play out again with the sale of marijuana.

Nothing about our experience with alcohol suggests the state would be more responsible than regulated independent shops.

Of course, common sense regulations should still be put in place to satisfy public security needs. But avoiding the completely nonsensical laws that have followed alcohol over the past century should be a priority.

Consider, for example, that in Quebec bartenders cannot concoct their own bitters to use in cocktails. British Columbia only recently legalized “happy hour”, where drinks become marginally less expensive. This type of hair-pulling red tape has already been suggested for medical cannabis.

Last summer, the family of a six-year old boy with Dravet syndrome learned that Health Canada changed the regulations surrounding medical marijuana. The young child would no longer be able use cannabis oil to treat his seizures; he could only smoke or vaporize it.

When the Supreme Court recently ruled that medical marijuana could be – shock – consumed in food, Health Minister Rona Ambrose expressed her outrage at such an idea. Only the government could argue that getting toddlers to smoke weed is less harmful than ingesting purified oil or eating an infused cookie. It’s these types of staunch ideological positions that get in the way of sensible policy.

It would be perfectly fair game for governments to apply steep taxes on cannabis – as they do with cigarettes and alcohol. But we need to ensure that mistakes from the past are not repeated. It would be ill-advised for governments to venture into what the private sector could handle much more efficiently.

With an influx of new tax revenue, the only costs associated with legalization would be ensuring regulatory adhesion and cracking down on illegal operations. Those costs would happen regardless – and would decrease over time as people adjust to the new system – and taxpayers would save on real estate costs and union paycheques that come with operating a retail monopoly.

With legalization all but inevitable, we need to make sure the correct path is taken, and that our governments do not venture down the road of total control. It’s great that the Liberals and NDP are gearing for change, but until they unveil a concrete plan for liberalization, we can only assume the worst.

Tom Kott is a consultant at HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.

Original post HERE. Republished with permission from the National Post


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