In parts of North America that once had influential temperance movements, like Mississippi or Ontario, it's still illegal to advertise happy hour. Long after prohibition became passé, governments haven't lost the urge to express disapproval for the willy-nilly sale of intoxicants.
And so, when the Liberal government moves Thursday to table legislation to legalize cannabis, it's going to talk about controlling and regulating and restricting – sending a signal marijuana is bad, making sure it's sold without a lot of branding hoopla to limit the dark arts of temptation, and especially emphasizing measures to stop pot from falling into the hands of minors.
Justin Trudeau's Liberals can expect praise from those who've dreamed of legalization, but politically, they want to reassure those with doubts, and they'd rather it didn't look like it will be happy hour every day at 4:20.
And on the substance, being careful about the consequences and minimizing the negative impacts is important: it's a big bold step.
But there's an important thing about all of those control measures, from restricting branding to strict penalties for selling pot to minors to work on detecting stoned driving, all of them will fail to some degree. And the inevitable little failings of how pot is legalized shouldn't overshadow the value of legalization.
The big thing is ending a policy that creates a multibillion-dollar black market and sees about 50,000 people a year arrested for possessing marijuana – something almost half the population has done.
It's a step governments considered, and shelved, for decades. Pierre Trudeau appointed the Le Dain Commission on drugs in 1969, and hinted about legalizing marijuana before the Nixon administration protested. Joe Clark suggested he'd decriminalize pot in 1979, but never did, and then Ronald Reagan's "War on Drugs" made it a taboo topic.
Jean Chrétien's government actually tabled a bill to decriminalize marijuana in 2003, seven before months Mr. Chrétien stepped down, but didn't rush to pass it. Paul Martin revived the bill, but worried abut the politics, and it died with the 2004 election.
One can still cite all kinds of problems. The White House doesn't love it. U.S. border guards have, in a few cases, refused entry to Canadians who admitted smoking marijuana, though pot is now legal in eight states and decriminalized in more. Legalizing marijuana violates a 1961 anti-drug treaty. The police are concerned about stoned driving – a legitimate problem, but not one that begins with legalization.
But the damage from doing nothing is worse. It starts with the arrest and prosecution of tens of thousands for doing something that, by their own actions, Canadians have widely accepted is okay. The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey found 43 per of Canadians over 15 had tried marijuana – if you exclude minors and seniors, it's a majority. Yet roughly 50,000 a year are still arrested for possessing marijuana, a drug that's less lethal than alcohol, and about half of them charged. In a typical year, 10,000-15,000 of those possession cases involve teens.
The NDP, which campaigned on decriminalizing, rather than legalizing marijuana, complains that people are still being charged – suggesting decriminalization would have been quicker. But that wouldn't crack another massive problem with criminal pot: it creates a black market that the government estimates generates $7-billion to $10-billion a year, and that funds a lot of gangsters with guns.
But there's still that persistent fear that legalization will send the wrong signal, especially to teens, that smoking pot is okay.
That's part of the reason the Liberals are expected to set restrictions on marketing marijuana, tighter even than on tobacco – aimed at trying to prevent the kind of lifestyle ads used to make alcohol seem like the start of all good times. Tobacco companies once advertised freely, and when governments set restrictions, Big Tobacco pushed the envelope, even apparently aiming products at teens. The Liberals will want pot producers to start on a tight leash.
But it won't all work. Some teenagers will get pot. They do now. Some will obtain pot from government-licensed producers. The government can't control everything and it will probably make mistakes. But marijuana isn't controlled now, it's just punished. And the big thing is stopping the damage that causes.