I'm not overly invested in the marijuana debate. My friends and I all smoked pot when we were young, but hardly any of us bother any more. In my circle, the drugs of choice are martinis and Chardonnay. Frankly, we consider stoners déclassé.
That doesn't mean pot laws are of no concern to the upper middle class. Quite a lot of parents I know have been forced to shell out $10,000 or $15,000 to make sure their kid didn't acquire a criminal record simply for having a joint in his pocket. Less affluent kids are less likely to get off the hook, so clearly there's a social-justice issue here.
Which brings us to Justin Trudeau, who struck a bold blow for social justice this week when he declared that it's time to stop stalling and legalize pot once and for all. It's a position most Canadians agree with, so it's not bad politics. At last – a bright line in the sand between the forces of enlightened common sense, as embodied by the younger generation (Mr. Trudeau), and the forces of ignorance and repression, as embodied by out-of-touch, old white Conservatives! Is there any doubt whose side you'd rather be on?
Well, there might just be a little doubt. The battle over pot is a classic culture war, generating a lot of heat and very little light, with plenty of myth and misinformation on both sides. Legalizing marijuana wouldn't be the road to moral ruin. But it wouldn't solve all our problems either.
Like a lot of people, Mr. Trudeau seems to think that once we legalize marijuana, everything will be the same, but without arrests. In fact, he says our kids will be even safer. "Tax it. Regulate it," he said this week. "It's one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids."
Fat chance. Simple logic says he's wrong. When people want something and you make it easier to get, demand generally goes up. Especially if the price goes down. And the price of legal marijuana would go way down. It would likely be the cheapest high on a per-hour basis of all the common drugs, including beer – even if it's heavily taxed. That's because marijuana is ridiculously inexpensive to produce. It could probably be grown on a commercial basis for less than $25 a pound. That's less than 1 per cent of the current street price (about $200 an ounce in Vancouver, according to PriceofWeed.com).
I'm not trying to be snarky. I'm just pointing out the facts. On the whole, marijuana isn't very dangerous, and arresting people for possession is ludicrous. But Mr. Trudeau must be smoking something if he thinks legalizing pot would decrease consumption. Of course it wouldn't! Legalizing alcohol didn't decrease consumption either.
In fact, the evidence, such as it is, suggests that legalization would likely double or triple marijuana use. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. We just shouldn't kid ourselves.
It's hard to find experts who are objective about drug policy, especially in Canada, where the conversation has been hopelessly polarized between the law-and-order crowd and the legalize-everything gang (very popular in B.C.).
The most trustworthy source I've found is Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and a lifelong student of drug policy. The facts I'm citing here are drawn from a valuable book he co-authored, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know. Mr. Kleiman is now the newly appointed pot czar of the state of Washington, which recently voted to legalize marijuana. His job is to help Washingtonians do it well, not stupidly, and to learn as they go.
Ask Mr. Kleiman for a cost-benefit analysis of legalizing pot, and he'll say it all depends. "Any honest assessment of the situation needs to acknowledge uncertainty," he wrote recently. That's because, contrary to popular belief, "there is currently no legal commercial (non-medical) production and distribution system for marijuana anywhere in the world."
Mr. Kleiman busts some other myths held dear by legalizers. For one, the revenues from taxing pot wouldn't be all that great, because even with a big increase in demand, marijuana is not that big a business. Nor would legalization in the U.S. drive the Mexican drug cartels out of business. That's because pot doesn't account for very much of their business, maybe 20 per cent. The real money's in hard drugs. The number of young men in jail would definitely go down – especially in the United States, which has been far harsher than Canada on drug crime. But the number of young adult potheads would definitely go up.
Mr. Kleiman warns that business interests would certainly try to hijack the industry, just as they have with alcohol. He points out that in California, the medical-marijuana business is an open joke – anyone can get a prescription from certain doctors, and most of them aren't sick. Meantime, the widely touted medical benefits of cannabis are still unproven, partly because governments have blocked proper scientific testing.
There would, of course, be lots of immediate benefits to legalization. Police officers would have to find something else to do. Defence lawyers would have to turn in their Porsches. But before we rush into this, maybe we should watch and learn from the experiment in Washington.
"We have to use evidence and science to make sure we're moving forward," Mr. Trudeau said the other day. I agree. Now if only he would follow his own advice.