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After a scare, the Liberal government’s marijuana legalization bill survived second reading in the Senate last week, overcoming objections that “it doesn’t protect people,” as one Tory senator put it.

A Liberal government moving to legalize pot, led by a man who has smoked it, might be expected to reply that “protection” isn’t the only consideration here.

It might point out the wrongness of criminalizing a drug that’s no more harmful than booze. It might argue that police and prison resources are wasted on enforcing a form of prohibition that doesn’t work.

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But no. In his mini-standoff with the Senate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stuck with the Liberal Party mantra on cannabis. This is not legalization because state coercion to prohibit the use of weed can no longer be justified. It’s legalization to keep pot out of the hands of kids and gangsters.

The political appeal of this message is obvious. It’s a savvy way to get nervous parents and cops on board. And squeezing money out of organized crime is a happy side-effect of legalization that the government has every right to tout.

But making the message only about harm reduction has always risked incoherence. The idea that legalization will reduce cannabis consumption seems wishful. A recent Deloitte study predicted that an extra 17 per cent of adult Canadians will use pot once it’s legalized.

As for kids, it’s true that they shouldn’t be smoking weed (it’s bad for their developing brains), but it’s hard to see how the minimum legal age of 18 will put any dent in high schoolers getting high on black-market pot.

The difficulties inherent in the government’s emphasis on safety above all was visible in its recent proposal for cannabis packaging regulations. The child-resistant plastic bag suggested by Health Canada looks like it contains radioactive granola. Making legal buyers feel like they’re copping nuclear waste could push them into the arms of increasingly marketing-savvy illicit dealers.

So could restricting the sale of pot to a clutch of austere government-run stores, as Ontario is proposing. This is on the grounds, Premier Kathleen Wynne tells us, that parents don’t want weed sold next to candy bars in corner stores (unlike, say, cigarettes?).

This kind of scare-mongering rhetoric is enabled by a federal position that has made a fetish of safety and restricted access, even as it legalizes the sale and use of a popular drug. No wonder it’s stumbling.

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