The Liberal government is about to introduce legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana. What's the best way to do that? That's what Ottawa has been puzzling over ever since the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, made their bold promise in the last election campaign.
For answers, look at how Canada has succeeded, and failed, in dealing with another recreational product both popular and problematic for public health: tobacco.
In the early 1990s, the federal government had a plan. If it steadily raised taxes on cigarettes, it could drive down the rate of smoking – thereby addressing one of Canada's biggest health challenges.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The higher the price of something, the less people can afford it. Making cigarettes ever more costly would, all else equal, make them less accessible.
But all else wasn't equal. Rising taxes did effect buyers and sellers of tobacco sticks, but the effect was not what the government had in mind.
Instead of simply smoking fewer legal, expensive cigarettes, smokers started looking for cheaper, illegal alternatives. Smugglers and bootleggers started bringing cigarettes across the border in huge and growing quantities. The legal cigarette market – taxed, regulated, overseen by government – was increasingly being replaced by a black market: unsupervised, untaxed and run by organized crime.
The tobacco harm-reduction strategy hit a tipping point. Despite the best of intentions, it appeared to be promoting more harm than it reduced. In response, cigarette taxes were lowered.
According to Health Canada, 100 Canadians die of a smoking illness every day. But Ottawa's aggressive move to address that, a generation ago, ended up creating a whole new social harm.
Even though smoking was never banned, overly high taxes had an impact that looked very similar to that seen in places that had once had alcohol prohibition. Making alcohol illegal didn't make alcohol impossible to get; it just made it impossible to get legally. Prohibition, intended to reduce the harm of alcohol use, ended up subsidizing criminality.
In an ideal Canada, drinkers would only drink in moderation, and there would be no tobacco smokers. But prohibiting the sale of cigarettes, as was once tried with alcohol, is not realistic, because so many Canadians want to smoke. Education, social disapprobation, restricting sales to adults and banning smoking from most public places have all helped dramatically lower the incidence of smoking. So have cigarette taxes – up to a point.
Which brings us to marijuana. Some people think legal marijuana will be a wonderful thing, because they believe marijuana is wonderful, full stop. The truth, however, is that recreational weed is a mixed bag. Like tobacco and alcohol, legalization makes sense as a harm-reduction strategy. The reason for legalizing pot is that the experience of the past few decades suggests that a lot of people want to use it and are using it, regardless of its legal status. As a result, the harm of prohibition, notably the criminality caused by its illegality, outweighs the benefits.
Canada and the rest of the world have spent a century-and-a-half experimenting with different models for alcohol and tobacco. That gives the federal Liberal government – and the provinces, who will end up carrying the weight of Ottawa's legal changes – some lessons to borrow and learn from.
Legalization means regulation: The sprouting of pot shops, in anticipation of legalization, is something legislation must address. Like cigarettes and alcohol, marijuana should be sold only to adults, by supervised sellers. It's about ending the situation of drugs being sold by "a guy," not entrenching it.
Legalization means reducing illegality: The point of legalizing pot is not to give the imprimatur of legality to all currently illegal activities – from corner pot shops to the guy on the corner. The aim is to end the free-for-all.
You need permits, licensing, municipal zoning, inspections and so on to sell everything from gas to prescription drugs. The same should apply to legal pot sales. Sounds boring? Peace, order and good government is supposed to be boring.
Harms must be minimized: Drunk driving is one of Canada's biggest killers, but progress is being made in reducing its occurrence, thanks to a combination of education and enforcement. We're going to need scientifically sound, legally defensible tests for impaired driving caused by pot use.
Tax to legalize, don't legalize to tax: The main purpose of legalization is to end criminality and illegality – not to provide a windfall of new government revenue. Any revenue is a bonus, but it's not the point. There should be taxes on pot, but they must not be so high as to achieve the unintended consequence of fostering the continuation of a black market.