Canadian Commentary

Free Pot!

November 2002

In the past two years, Canada has been trying to sort out how it wants to deal with the issue of marijuana. The reason something needs to be done is fairly clear: while smoking pot does not cause a great deal of harm, the laws that criminalize it do cause harm, by forcing the establishment of criminal networks for its production and distribution, and by clogging up the legal system with otherwise law-abiding smokers.

The Canadian government has come up with various uncoordinated initiatives to make a start at addressing the problem. When he was Health Minister, Allan Rock established a program for the government-approved production and distribution of medicinal marijuana to people suffering from chronic pain. However, the system was plagued with distribution problems, exacerbated by the continued opposition of local police forces. It has now been put on the back burner by the new Health Minister, supposedly because the medicinal benefits of marijuana use have not been scientifically proven. In any case, the whole medical marijuana issue only represents a sidebar to the fundamental issue, which is the widespread recreational use of marijuana in Canada.

The Canadian government has floated some trial balloons that address this more fundatmental problem. The Minister of Justice has mused publicly about making possession of small amounts of marijuana a misdemeanour rather than a criminal offence, while a recent Senate Committee came up with a detailed report on the marijuana issue (http://www.parl.gc.ca/37/1/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/ille-e/rep-e/repfinalvol3-e.htm). But neither of these discussions is likely to result in any actual action.

So far, only two long-term solutions to the marijuana issue have been seriously developed.

The first solution is the Dutch one, in which the selling of marijuana for personal use is tolerated. This policy has turned Holland into a kind of pot haven, where both the Dutch and pot tourists from around the world can buy and smoke freely. The Dutch solution is not entirely satisfactory, however. Large-scale production and distribution of marijuana is still illegal, and so criminal networks are still required to actually get the pot to the cafes where it will be sold. In other words, the Dutch model is not so much a solution as an accomodation, rife with inherent contradictions, and it does not really address the fundamental problem of removing the element of criminality from marijuana distribution. In addition, although being a pot haven is likely a useful source of tourist income, it is not necessarily a goal that most Canadian citizens would find desirable.

The other model is to bring marijuana distribution under the control of the government. This was the solution used for another recreational drug, alcohol, after the end of prohibition, and is has worked quite well in Canada. It is a model that the Senate Committee report seriously contemplated. However, government distribution of marijuana would suffer far more serious complications than the distribution of alchohol. Alcohol is fairly difficult to make, and almost impossible to make as a high quality product in a clandestine manner. It is also difficult to distribute in bulk since it is a liquid. As a result, the government distribution system does not suffer from serious clandestine competition. Marijuana, on the other hand, is fairly easy to grow, and furthermore the government would probably choose to distribute lower-potency weed than clandestine producers could grow. As well, of course, the government would inevitably tax official pot in order to pay for the distribution network, allowing clandestine networks to undercut the price. As a result, a government distribution network would continually compete with criminal networks, and this solution would not really address the fundamental problem. Furthermore, as the experiment with medical marijuana has shown, government distribution networks are by their nature subject to complications and differences of opinion within government agencies.

In both cases, the real problem turns out to be, not consumption, but production and distribution. This is the key issue that must be addressed in order to remove marijuana as a support for criminal activity. Basically, Canada needs to devise a system where it is possible to go though the whole production chain, from growth to distribution and usage, without ever involving criminal activity. Fortunately, the ease with which marijuana can be grown provides an opporunity to create such a system.

Here is a simple, obvious solution to this problem:

Basically, the solution is to let everyone who wants to smoke pot grow their own. They could also give it away to friends. But they couldn't sell it. Suddenly, there would be little market for mass-produced pot grown by criminals, because anyone who wanted pot would grow it themselves.

The government would not have to get involved or take responsibility for policy or for distribution. Rather than fighting the fact that marijuana is fairly easy to produce, the government would be taking advantage of this characteristic. The establishment of the new laws could be accompanied by a crackdown on criminal mass-producers, which might help disrupt distribution enough for the grow-your-own policy to take hold.

There would be subsidiary benefits. The marketing of pot would become less aggressive. Since no-one would make money off it, no-one would have an incentive to persuade teenagers to start using it if they're not yet ready to make that decision. The fear of pot being "pushed", whether this phenomenon is real or imagined, would dissipate.

As well, Canada would become less of a drug-producing nation, which would help our relationship with the United States. If domestic demand for mass-produced pot collapses, it will undermine criminal growers, who will likely move elsewhere. If most pot in Canada was grown in small quantities, there would be no suplus to export to the south. Whatever we may think of U.S. drug policy, it is obviously not good neighbourly behaviour to export large quantities of unwanted drugs to their country.

In effect, marijuana production would be largely removed from economic activity, except for the shops that sold growing material and seeds. Anyone who wanted to smoke would be able to do so. Pot would no longer be a source of income and power for criminal organizations, and since the consumption of pot would not be public or commercial, Canada would not become a pot haven, thus avoiding the disadvantages of the Dutch system.

The solution is not just decriminalization, but decommercialization. By allowing anyone to grow marijuana for their own personal use, while cracking down on commercial distribution, Canada could have its pot and smoke it too.

November 2002

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