Canada is at risk of creating a “nanny state” model if we over-regulate with marijuana legalization.

Originally published on The Hill Times

VICTORIA, B.C.—When Thomas Mulcair recently asked Justin Trudeau “when the hell was he going to legalize marijuana,” it was almost surreal. For those of us who have been working to end cannabis prohibition for many years these are ‘the days.’ Thankfully Prime Minister Trudeau gave the correct answer that politicians and policy makers need to keep hearing: under prohibition children have easy access to cannabis and prohibition enriches organized crime.

First and foremost, the whole point of ending cannabis prohibition is to stop both of these societal ills. Despite these being ‘the days,’ the point of legalizing cannabis is getting a bit muddied. The number and scope of stakeholders are ever-increasing, which is why it is critical to remain focused on why and how we got here. Just as the end of alcohol prohibition brought about the demise of gangland violence and a more sober approach to alcohol consumption, we all hope for similar results when cannabis becomes a regulated commodity. That being said, we must be extremely cautious of creating just another form of prohibition, or as it’s being referred to in the United States, “prohibition 2.0.”

In the US, anti-cannabis groups and hyper-regulators are calling for legislation which is so extreme and un-American in its approach it is almost certain that if these guidelines were adopted, the black market would indeed continue and thrive as it has done for more than 50 years.

Canada is equally at risk of creating a “nanny state” model if we do not remember the two reasons we are ending cannabis prohibition to start with.

Removing the profit incentive

Public health officials are at the forefront of this issue. Health Minister Jane Philpott announced to the United Nations in April that Canada will legalize cannabis in the spring of 2017. The Health Minister and other health professionals want to regulate a substance that, in its current prohibitive state, is considered potentially harmful to young minds. By regulating it, we remove the majority of the profit incentive for the black market to continue to peddle it to underage consumers. The key is how we regulate it in order to remove the profit incentive and this is where the waters are starting to muddy.

As much as a highly-regulated model sounds good, it is not. Alcohol under prohibition was available at the pharmacy with a medical prescription and was dispensed at said pharmacy. The costs were not the barrier—convenience was. In fact, convenience is currently one of the top three drivers of the black market in states which have already legalized. If we look to the current medical providers, though not necessarily a reflection of what the adult use market will be, there are relevant markers. Licensed medical marijuana producers are currently distributing cannabis through the mail, which is convenient to some but not to others. In Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria city, regulators are approaching the increased volume of cannabis dispensaries with varying degrees of acceptance. Dispensaries are considered not only convenient but also provide a component which mail order does not: personal experience. Some consumers want that, and some don’t. If Canada is to be successful in stopping the profit incentive of cannabis for black marketeers, it must make access as convenient as possible for all consumers except, of course, underage consumers. If there are cracks in the system, there are those who are ready, willing, and able to fill them and they will not ask for I.D.

Black markets exist in many commodities worldwide. Any commodity which there is a demand for that is prohibited either legally or economically can be sold for profit, and most times, considerable profit. Organized crime gangs are not in the black market business as “non-profits”— it’s all about the money. Once cannabis becomes regulated the illegality of the commodity is removed, which leaves only the economic driver as incentive for any organized criminal activity. If we are to succeed in the mandate of de-funding organized crime, the cost of cannabis must be on par with reasonable production costs, thus removing profit margins. If the costs to the consumer are inflated either by unnecessary regulatory restrictions or excessive taxation the black market will fill the demand for less regulated and un-taxed cannabis as they have been doing for almost fifty years now.

If we are to succeed in not just legalizing cannabis but truly fulfilling the mandate of the Liberal government and the reason we are ending cannabis prohibition we must stay focused on why and how we got here and not get distracted by the supporters of prohibition 2.0.

The good news is the cost of growing cannabis should be quite low; it’s a hearty plant and grows like a weed.