The decision by voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana represents a seismic shift in public attitudes. This historic reform will only add urgency to the message of a growing number of law enforcement experts, scientists and politicians: that a new approach to the failed war on drugs is desperately needed.
The current punitive approach to marijuana is not effective and squanders valuable public resources that could be directed toward prevention, and treatment of addiction to more dangerous drugs, including methamphetamines, cocaine and heroin.
Unfortunately, the Harper government remains stubbornly convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that prohibition works. On Nov. 6, the same day voters in Colorado and Washington passed their plebiscites to allow adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana (or 16 ounces of marijuana in cookies) for personal use, Canada’s laws became even more draconian. Mandatory six-month jail terms are now in effect for first-time offenders convicted of growing as few as six marijuana plants. Canada is wasting precious resources on incarcerating people who could otherwise be leading productive lives. Increased arrests and law enforcement pressures on drug markets have historically only led to an increase in violent crime, not a decrease.
“More voices in Latin America and the U.S. that are viewed as credible are advocating for a broader debate on drug policy. A number believe in outright legalization, at least for marijuana,” said Eric Olsen, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “The change in law in the two U.S. states is not yet the tipping point but is a step in that direction.”
Felipe Calderon, the former president of Mexico, has called the marijuana legalization in the two U.S. states a “paradigm shift,” while an adviser for President Enrique Peña Nieto says Mexico may reconsider the vast resources it directs toward stopping the smuggling of marijuana across the border. Mexico’s cartels derive between 20 and 40 per cent of their revenues from marijuana sales, and the violence and corruption associated with the black market has taken a terrible toll, resulting in the deaths of more than 60,000 people in the past six years. Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are now trafficking corridors, and homicides rates in these countries are among the highest in the world. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include George Shultz, a former U.S. secretary of state, Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and several former Latin American presidents, have called for a new approach, concluding that abolition has taken a terrible toll on crime rates and on public health.
Legalization is expected to weaken the drug cartels by destroying their monopoly on the lucrative market for marijuana.
Washington state predicts it will not only save millions on the costs of enforcing prohibition – arrests, prosecutions and incarceration – but also bring in new revenues from taxes on the now legal substance. The state’s liquor control board has one year to develop a licensing system to regulate how many growers and processors of marijuana there should be. It remains to be seen how the White House will react, as recreational use of marijuana remains a crime under federal law. However President Barack Obama told 20/20’s Barbara Walters that the government is unlikely to target recreational users in states where pot is legal.
In California and 13 other states, marijuana laws have been loosened; those convicted of possessing less than one ounce can be found guilty only of an infraction, and fined. This has had an impact on crime rates. Between 2010 and 2011, California saw a 20-per-cent decrease in juvenile crime to the lowest level since the state began tracking it in 1954, according to a study released by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which attributes the change to the change in law.
In Amsterdam, where marijuana and hashish are not legal but are sold in regulated cafés, use of the drug is actually lower than in the U.S. Portugal has also decriminalized drugs, replacing jail time with counselling and treatment, which has led to a drop in crime and addiction.
Canada’s drug laws need to be reformed to reflect the success of these alternative approaches. Public opinion is already on side: a recent study by The Forum Poll found that 65 per cent of Canadians favour either the legalization and taxation of cannabis, or decriminalizing it in small amounts. A group of former attorney-generals, mayors and other figures in B.C., where the pot industry is worth an estimated $7-billion, recently issued a call for cannabis use to be decriminalized. Canadians are ready to contemplate drug reform and unafraid to speak the truth: abolition has failed. What is stopping Ottawa from moving forward?