Corbella: A few things that should go up in smoke prior to pot legalization

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I’m no cannabis crusader, user, or fan of the plant, but I do favour its legalization. Having said that, many things are bothering me in the lead-up to the legalization of marijuana in Canada.

My No. 1 pet peeve about legalization of pot is that it’s taking place on Canada Day — July 1, 2018 — Canada’s 151st birthday.

Unless Canadians force Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to change the date (heck, July 2 would be OK) there is a real chance that even though the long-fought battle has been won, the not-so-laid-back marijuana militants will likely hijack every official Canada Day event for years to come, turning it into little more than a giant pot party that families will be forced to avoid.

Making marijuana legal on Canada Day will also eclipse the real importance and significance of the day, which is to celebrate the confederation of this great land into one country, rather than to commemorate cannabis legalization and the person who made it so. Choosing Canada Day as the date of eliminating pot prohibition is the worst kind of narcissistic, vanity-laden sophistry disguised as playful progressiveness by Trudeau. 

The PM seemingly wants his face and name celebrated by grateful ganja users every Canada Day to recognize one of his few upheld 2015 election campaign promises. Hopefully, concerned Canadians will let His Highness of Hubris know that they want him to find another day on which to have this landmark legislation memorialized. June 30 will do, along with virtually any other day.

You can protest this with a short letter objecting to the date of legalization by dropping a quick note in the mail to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ont., K1A 0A6. No postage is required. Or, email him at justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca

My No. 2 pet peeve is the “planning” for the pot-pocalypse by politicians and police services across the country. 

Police chiefs across Canada are thrusting their hands out for more money from their respective funding bodies — in Calgary’s case, it’s city hall — warning that there is an “urgency” to provide virtually every patrol car in Canada with the means to test drivers for marijuana impairment. It’s as though they believe that come the day of legalization (which as mentioned, should be changed), millions more Canadians will start driving around stoned. This is simply hazy thinking.

No credible person is anticipating a huge spike in cannabis use, come legalization. It’s not a big issue now, so don’t be fooled into believing it will be an enormous issue come Canada Day (a date which, I remind you again, needs to be changed). Compared to the issues of impairment caused by alcohol, this is a minuscule problem. As Craig Jones, the volunteer head of the marijuana advocacy group NORML Canada pointed out, there’s a joke that you can always tell when the marijuana harvest is in on Garbriola Island in B.C. because everyone drives under 10 km/h.

“People who would smoke cannabis and drive when it’s legal are already doing it,” said Jones. “I do not expect a spike in cannabis use and cannabis use and driving.”

Exactly right. The people who would never smoke pot or even cigarettes under any circumstances are not going to suddenly start smoking the stuff simply because it’s legal. 

Currently, there are no effective tests to measure marijuana impairment, anyway. Perhaps over time, a test will be developed that will be able to distinguish between the use of cannabis and impairment by cannabis, and not based just on blood samples, since marijuana can be evident in a person’s blood long after they have used the substance and are no longer impaired.

Nevertheless, there is no need for panic now. If you see some police spokesperson warning of the need for more money to be in place for the day of legalization, you can be certain of one thing — they are trying to create a sense of alarm in order to secure more money.

No. 3: The spectacle of federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, along with the finance ministers of the provinces all grinning like Cheech & Chong in separate media conferences declaring great victory that the feds will take 25 per cent of pot excise tax revenues (to a maximum of $100 million per year) and the provinces 75 per cent was unseemly. No one actually rubbed their hands together with glee at the anticipated weed windfall, but they sure looked like they wanted to.

At the same time, they are all claiming that they are not expecting said windfall and that this is being done to “protect our children.” In other words, they should all work harder at learning to hide their elation at the prospect of a stoned percentage of the populace. Hopefully, a lot of the resources that do come in are used to warn kids and parents that the links between pot smoking and serious mental illness in youth, including schizophrenia, is growing.

Jones, who has been advocating for the legalization of marijuana for almost 30 years, says it might be five years before we know which level of government assumes what cost of administering and regulating the new rules around pot, but he does anticipate that there will be significant savings for the criminal justice system.

“I expect there to be a substantial peace dividend when the feds stop charging people with possession of cannabis . . . which the provinces bear the cost for the administration of the justice system. The costs to the justice system are not unsubstantial,” said Jones, who was reached at his office in Ontario.

Jones warned, however, that if governments don’t get the balance on taxes right, the price of legal pot will keep the current black market (including criminal organizations) in business.

That view is shared in the November 2016 report of the federal Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation.

“Taxes should be high enough to limit the growth of consumption, but low enough to compete effectively with the illicit market,” states the report. “Mechanisms such as a minimum price should be used to prevent predatory pricing, if necessary.”

Jones adds that the amount of revenues the government can expect to reap is complicated by the fact that many medicinal and recreational users may soon choose to grow their own supply to avoid the taxes and to control the strain that best works for their medical condition or recreational purposes.

There will be growing pains and regulatory issues, but Jones is certain that the benefits of legalization will far outweigh any of the societal costs.

“If there is a gateway effect by using cannabis, it’s that you have to transact with the black market and those sellers often have other drugs for their customers to try,” explained Jones.

A couple of years ago, an 18-year-old Calgary man suffered a serious overdose from fentanyl because his dealer didn’t have any pot and offered the young man other drugs instead.

So, what will marijuana legalization advocates like Jones do once cannabis is legalized (hopefully not on July 1)? Jones says he’s going to try to design some kind of amnesty for people convicted of simple pot possession charges.

“We all know people who have had their lives deeply affected by possession of a couple of ounces of cannabis for personal use. They’re not traffickers, but they’re treated like criminals,” said Jones.

“It’s been an absurd, costly, punitive disaster, frankly, and I applaud the Liberal government for finally facing up to that.”

It was a political risk to be sure, so Trudeau deserves credit for taking this thorny issue and tackling it. Here’s hoping he does another good thing and changes the date marijuana is legalized. Help him make that decision.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist. lcorbella@postmedia.com

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