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Refrigerator magnets are displayed for sale outside a medical marijuana dispensary on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. (LUCY NICHOLSON/Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Refrigerator magnets are displayed for sale outside a medical marijuana dispensary on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. (LUCY NICHOLSON/Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The case for legalizing marijuana Add to ...

All eyes will be on California next month when voters, in addition to electing a new governor, will be asked to decide on a number of initiatives. One stands out for the political and economic reverberations it would set off if approved: Proposition 19 - the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 - would legalize marijuana for recreational use and allow its sale to be taxed. Not surprisingly, the ballot question has sparked a rancorous debate.

Those opposed to the measure cite the usual reasons: It would lead to increased use of pot, especially among the young; it would put more impaired people behind the wheel; it would amount to state sanction of bad behaviour.

But, increasingly, those against legalization have been engaged in a losing battle against others citing a growing body of evidence that suggests it's time to take a more modern approach to the issue.

Thursday, in Vancouver, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy is scheduled to release a report demonstrating the abject failure of marijuana prohibition in the United States. The team of renowned doctors, scholars and researchers behind the document, including Canadian AIDS pioneer Julio Montaner, support the legalization and regulation of cannabis.

The report uses 20 years of data collected by various U.S. government agencies to show just what a waste the war on drugs has been south of the border. That conclusion isn't new, but some of the facts that underline it are.

For instance, federal U.S. anti-drug expenditures increased 600 per cent to more than $18-billion in 2002 from $1.5-billion in 1981. Over the same period, the potency of cannabis increased by 145 per cent, while its price decreased by 58 per cent. Its use among Grade 12 students, meantime, increased to 32 per cent in 2008 from 27 per cent in 1990. (I hate to think what it was in the early 1970s, when I was in high school.)

The report says those worried about more people smoking legalized pot should consider that the rate of its use in the United States, where it's outlawed, is almost twice what it is in the Netherlands, where it's sold in licensed cafés. Portugal decriminalized marijuana in 2001, and its rates of use are among the lowest in the European Union.

Even law-enforcement groups in California concede that it's time to abandon the losing crusade against a drug that many believe is far less harmful than booze or cigarettes. Prop 19 would decriminalize roughly 60,000 drug arrests made in California each year. There are estimates that national regulation of pot would result in savings of more than $44-billion a year in U.S. enforcement expenditures alone.

Most politicians up for election in California on Nov. 2 have come out against Prop 19. Why alienate voters when you don't have to? Privately, however, many of these same pols are hoping the measure passes. Why? Money.

State officials say the measure could help generate as much as $1.4-billion a year in new tax revenue. And there isn't a state in the union that needs the money as badly as California.

My thinking has evolved on this issue. There was a time, particularly when my children were young, when I wasn't sure legalizing pot was such a good idea. But that old-school approach doesn't hold up any more. The fact is, the war on marijuana has done far more harm than the substance itself. And every reason for legalizing it in the U.S. applies to Canada as well.

It would destroy the economic model used by gangs on both sides of the border to generate huge profits. It would largely put them out of business. The illegal market for pot in California is worth $14-billion a year alone. In B.C., it's estimated at between $5-billion and $8-billion.

According to the latest poll, a slim majority of Californians are in favour of Prop 19. If it passes, look out. America's contemporary view on drugs could go up in smoke.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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