Generally Eclectic
Politics
Marijuana Legalization

Issue: What policies are appropriate?

Assumptions

Issues

1. User interests: These must count for something. According to a Health Canada survey in 2011, 9.1% of all Canadians 15 and over,41.8 % of Canadians 15 to 24, and 6.7% of Canadians 25 and over used marijuana in the past year. User interests include health effects, "psychotropic experiences", and legal ramifications of illegal possession.

1.1. Health Effects: Ideally, a full understanding of the health effects of any product, including marijuana, require multiple lines of scientific inquiry (toxicity studies, long-term studies of usage in the general population, double blind trials, animal studies, studies of the breakdown and processing of the drug in the body, biochemical analysis) all pointing toward a consistent conclusion. The health effects of marijuana have been much studied, but a clear understanding of the health effects is not in place.

Despite these studies, there is considerable uncertainty about the health effects of marijuana for these reasons. (1) The marijuana plant consists of over 400 hundred chemicals, of which only one is psychoactive. Any talk about the health effects of marijuana needs to specific what is being discussed: the psychoactive component or the total plant. (2) Because marijuana possession is illegal, study subjects may not answer questions about use honestly. (3) Because marijuana has been typically supplied through illegal channels, the quality of product consumed in the past has to be considered suspect; are megative health effects from the marijuana or the impurities in the consumed product. (4) Because of uncertain health effects, particularly on minors,and the potential for addiction, it is unethical for researchers to provide marijuana to research subjects in the double blind studies normally used to test the effects of drugs. (5) Because the effects of marijuana use are detectable by users, it is pointless to carry out double blind studies. (6) As historic marijuana use is often combined with smoking and other drug use, population studies have problems separating adverse effects from marijuana use versus other physical and socio-economic causes. (7) For particular potential adverse effects of marijuana use, it is difficult to determine whether the adverse effect caused marijuana use, or marijuana use created the adverse effects (e.g. depression and schizophrenia). (8) It requires long-term studies to address effects of drugs on the ultimate health question: lifespan. The issue has not been studied long enough.

To form your own opinion on the health effects of marijuana, click here for a tour of recent scientific abstracts from PubMed on the health effects of marijuana. Alternatively, The Wikipedia article Long Term Effects of Cannabis identifies the primary health issues associated with marijuana and provides a non-judgmental review of the science related to this issue. Needless to say, there are harmful side effects related to marijuana use, particularly use by young people.

From the scientific literature, while there may be negative effects of marijuana use, questions arise as to how negative are the negative effects - pernicious effects on a large number of users, or slight effects on a few users, or somewhere in between.

Consequently, for policy purposes, the negative effects from marijuana use need to be placed in an appropriate context. There are negative side effects related to lots of commonly consumed products, including caffeine, transfats, refined sugar, nitrates in meat products, dairy products, gluten-containing products, peanuts, alcohol, tobacco, over-the-counter drugs, and prescription drugs.

Confusing the issue further is the fact that marijuana (like many other drugs) has positive and negative effects. The positive effects include, among other things, pain relief in some people. Allowing marijuana use for medical purposes is evidence of the positive effects. As a consequence, understanding the health effects of marijuana requires a balancing of the positive and negative effects.

The options presented here have no effect on the foregoing, which is largely produced through scientific study. The options focus on the amount consumed and product quality.

For those who assume the increase in the amount consumed will have negative effects, it should be noted that to the extent that the amount consumed increases because users have replaced other, more unhealthy drugs, with marijuana, then an increase in marijuana consumption is likely to be beneficial.

1.1.1. Amount Consumed: Conventional understanding that consumption is responsive to disincentives to consumption, such as legal penalties and price. The underlying premise of marijuana policies is that the amount consumed is directly related to the extent of legal penalties (charges, fines, imprisonment). Increased penalties will reduce consumption, while decreased penalties will increase consumption. No penalties will increase consumption further.

Even if this premise is true, a secondary question involves the responsiveness of amount consumed to penalties. It is at least theoretically possible that the absence of penalties will have only a marginal impact on the amount consumed.

The policy challenge is to respond to these questions prior to changing the penalties. There are several ways generate an answer to these questions. (1) Make a judgment about the general availabilities of marijuana. If the judgment is that marijuana is widely available, then penalties would not seem to work. (2) Develop theoretical arguments why amount consumed may not be responsible to penalties. (3) Look at experience elsewhere to determine the effect of legal penalties on consumption.

1.1.2. Product Quality: Users would be healthier if they consumed products free of pesticides, other contaminates, and perhaps other drugs, if they were assured of marijuana or pyschoactive concentrations in the products they were consuming, and if they consumed the marijuana in its healthiest format (e.g. pills, filtered cigarettes versus dried leaves), and packaging included warning labels, drug interaction advice, information on concentration, etc.

1.2. Psychotropic Experience: Users consume marijuana because it gives them psychotropic experiences.

The extent of the psychotropic experiences would be determined by the amount consumed and the quality of the marijuana consumed.

1.3 Legal Ramifications: Individuals charged and convicted of possession of marijuana have criminal records that can have a significant effect on their futures. Some companies undoubtedly use criminal record checks to eliminate employment candidates from consideration. Some companies require candidates to obtain security clearances; criminal records can affect these clearances. Others want employees who can travel internationally; criminal records can create problems when trying to enter foreign countries.

2. Individual Freedom: In a democracy, many believe individual freedoms should not be infringed so long as individuals do not harm others. In the marijuana context, if an individual chooses to adversely affect his or her health by using marijuana, and can do so without harming others, then that individual should be free to so. Note that this idea of individual freedom does not automatically apply to minors, who may lack the maturity to make informed decisions with regard to tobacco and alcohol. Consequently, Canada restricts tobacco and alcohol sales to minors. Presumably, similar restrictions would apply to marijuana sales. As second hand smoke can do harm to others, Canada is curtailing the freedom to smoke in public places. Presumably, similar restrictions would be put in place for marijuana. In this context, "pot cafes" would not be permitted, even in marijuana use were legalized. There are strong penalties for impaired driving. Presumably, driving under the influence of marijuana would also face strong penalties.

3. Public Revenues and Expenditures: There are three aspects of public costs: tax revenue,enforcement costs and health care costs.

3.1. Public Revenues: This includes income taxes, HST/GST, provincial sales taxes, special taxes that might be imposed on producers or consumers, payroll taxes (CPP and EI), and profits from public corporations.

3.2. Enforcement Costs: This includes policing costs, crown prosecutor costs, court costs, and sentence administration costs.

The police are expected to detect suspected marijuana use, investigate suspected instances, and where investigations indicate a crime (leading to "police reported crime" statistics), unambiguously identify suspects (finger prints, pictures), keep notes for further reference, secure and protect evidence, set up and meet with crown prosecutors to discuss the reported crimes, and where cases goes to court, appear as witnesses.

Crown prosecutors need to review the police reported crimes, decide which ones would lead to charges, lay the charges, develop the case, determine whether to proceed to trial or to stay or withdraw the charges (including negotiations with suspects), where cases go to court, prepare the case, present the case in court, and address sentencing.

When cases are in the court system, court administrators schedule court time, notify the interested parties, support the judges who will hear the cases, and the judges will hear the cases.

If a guilty verdict emerges, there are enforcement costs related to holding people in custody (very expensive), managing probation sentences, and addressing fines that may be laid.

Since all the options would envision continued controls related to trafficking, importing, exporting, and production, enforcement costs of interest are those related to possession of marijuana.

In Canada, enforcement costs are borne primarily by provincial governments.

3.3. Health Care Costs: Since some Canada's health care costs (hospitals, doctors, some other professional services, some drugs) are borne substantially by the public health care system, policies that adversely affect the health of Canadians will have implications for health care costs.


While it may be possible to figure out health care costs from visits to a hospital emergency department from taking marijuana, many of the health effects from marijuana are long term, and the relationship between long-term health and marijuana use is complex, not only because there are negative and positive health effects, but also because many of the effects occur well into the future and cannot easily be attributed to marijuana use.

4. Organized Crime: The problem with organized crime (versus disorganized crime) is its efficiency and effectiveness. Organization, whether in business or crime, allows economies of scale, specialization, enhanced access to capital and other resources. It translates into more and larger crimes, with less risks. When organized criminals reach a certain size, they can overwhelm governments (witness Mexico and some South American countries), leading to violence and chaos and undermining the benefits of civilization to law-abiding citizens.

5. Economic Development in Canada: This includes at a minimum the creation of additional jobs in Canada, and could include business development, technological improvements, exportable know-how, etc.

6. Respect for Laws: Specific laws not supported generally by the citizens of a country can undermine citizens' respect for government in general and other laws. Disrespect for these other laws is a precursor to illegal activities. In addition, when some citizens disrespect laws, other citizens may be less reluctant to break laws.

7. International Relations: It is beneficial for Canada to have good relationships with foreign governments, particularly the United States and the member states in the United Nations, and to have stable countries, particularly those countries close to Canada.

7.1. Relations with the United States: As the United States is a superpower that shares a long border with Canada and that is Canada's major trading partner, it is important to have a relationship that respects each others' interests and works to find constructive solutions where conflicts arise.

7.2. International Agreements: The United Nations works to secure international agreements to deal with issues of global importance. In 1988, the United Nations approved the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which came into force in 1990. By 2013, 183 members states had signed on, including Canada.

7.3. Stable Neighbours: Canada has an interest in stable neighbouring governments. The destabilizing effects of drug cartels on Mexico, Central and South American countries can lead to chaos and present problems for Canada.

8. Non-User Concerns: Third party concerns include concerns about the effects on young people who see adults smoking marijuana in public places, annoyance at those who break the law and do not do what the law wants them to do (regardless whether the law makes sense), and worries about being victims of impaired driving.

Options

Illegal Possession and Current Possession Penalties (Status Quo) Option 1: Canada's marijuana policy is set out in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, particularly section 4 (possession), section 5 (trafficking), section 6 (import and export) and section 7 (production) and Schedule II (application of the law to "cannabis, its preparations, derivatives and similar synthetic preparations".and related schedules. Possession, trafficking, import, export and production are illegal. Anyone found in possession of small amounts of marijuana is "guilty of an offense punishable on summary conviction and liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both". Otherwise, penalties for possession, trafficking, import, export and production are stiff. The effectiveness of these policies, at least with regard to children, is available from Child well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview. Canada ranked 29th and last among rich countries in terms of children ages 11, 13 and 15 reporting cannabis used in the last 12 months. About 28 % of Canadian children reported cannabis use. This percentage is several percentage points higher than the next rich country, and about 6% higher than the United States.

Illegal Possession and Stiffer Possession Penalties Option 2: This might include, for example, removal of the provision allowing for lighter penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Illegal Possession and Lighter Possession Penalties Option 3: Lighter penalties for possession of small amounts would likely mean tickets leading to fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana, instead court proceeding, convictions and related fines and imprisonment, that would lead to criminal records that could have repercussions for employment, international travel, and citizenship. This option could also include a broader definition of items that could be possessed, as well as larger amounts that could be possessed.

Legal Possession and Illegal Supply Option 4: Prohibitions against the trafficking, import, export and production of marijuana would continue. In summary, one could possess marijuana, but not get it from anyone. This option could also include a broader definition of items that could be possessed, as well as larger amounts that could be possessed.

Legal Possession and Controlled Supply: The purpose of controlling the supply of marijuana would include reducing consumption by minors, supporting the long-term reduction in use by adults, improving the health of users by providing them with information on the health effects and ensuring the quality/quantity of whatever is concerned, significantly reducing the role of organized criminals in the supply chain, increasing the role of Canadians in the supply chain, and generating a significant net increase in public revenues.

There are various "controlled supply" models in operation in Canada in products other than marijuana, including prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco, medicinal marijuana. There are emerging models of controlled supply for marijuana in Uruguay, Colorado, Washington State, and elsewhere.

Controlled supply could occur through the involvement of government organizations in the production, distribution and sale of marijuana, or through the creation of a regulatory framework that allows licensed private organizations to produce, distribute and sell marijuana and taxation of consumers to be collected by sellers to generate the public revenue, or some hybrid structure that would have government organizations involved in some functions and regulated private organizations involved in other functions, and if governments organizations are not the sellers, a tax regime to generate public revenues.

Controlled supply would require prohibitions and penalties, likely stiff penalties, for those operating outside the controlled supply chain, to ensure the integrity of the controlled supply chain. Many of the current laws regarding trafficking, production, import and export would likely stay in place. In addition, there would likely be laws prohibiting users from purchasing marijuana outside the control supply chain (i.e. from criminals).

Managers of the controlled supply chain would need to set sales prices or taxes high enough to discourage usage and raise public revenues, yet low enough to reduce and eventually eliminate black markets controlled by organized criminals. As controlled supply would initially compete with a black market, initial taxes and prices would likely be lower than than the black market price, and would increase over time as the controlled supply chain replaces the black market.

The controlled supply system would follow the practice with alcohol and tobacco and not sell marijuana to minors. Additional mechanisms could be put in place to make it more difficult for minors to get marijuana.

The Analytical Table

To see the analytical table, click Table; Table With Fixed Header; PDF

Resources

Introduction

Cannabis (drug) from Wikipedia

Cannabis from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Legal

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from the consolidated statute from the Laws of Canada

Legal History of Cannabis in Canada" from Wikipedia.

Statistics

Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey (CADUMS)Tables from Health Canada, 2011 survey

Cross Canada Report on Student Alcohol And Drug Use: Technical Report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Child Well-Being in Rich Countries A Comparative Overview from UNICEF, April 2013

Police Reported Crime Statistics in Canada, 2012 from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada

Adult criminal court statistics in Canada, 2011-2012 from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada

Incident-based crime statistics, by detailed violations from Statistics Canada

Health

Marijuana and Health - Scientific Update from PubMed - a selection of recent abstracts

Long-term effects of cannabis from Wikipedia

Medical Cannabis from Wikipedia

Cannabis Dependence from Wikipedia

Gateway Drug Theory - Cannabis from Wikipedia

Effects of Cannabis from Wikipedia

Clearing the Smoke on Cannabis - Highlights, April 2013 from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Teenage cannabis use leads to cognitive decline from New Scientist, August 27, 2012

Costs

Cost Study from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Cannabis: Our Position For a Canadian Public Policy: Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs: Summary, 2002 from the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs

International Context

United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances from the United Nations

Uruguay vote moves the country towards legal cannabis from New Scientist, August 2, 2013

New Zealand law permits 'low risk' designer drugs from NewScientist, June 14, 2013

Legal highs in New Zealand Out of the shadows from the Economist, August 21, 2013

Miscellaneous

Why It's Time to Legalize Marijuana from MacLeans, June 10, 2013

Links to articles on legalization of marijuana in Canada from the Huffington Post

Marijuana Legalizations or Decriminalization Backed by Most Canadians Poll from the Toronto Star

More than two thirds support decriminalization/legalization of marijuana from Forum Research