Dan Malleck is the author of When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origin of Canada’s Drug Laws. He is an associate professor of health sciences at Brock University.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the provincial liquor control board is the best way to sell pot. Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger made the same comment three weeks earlier. Ontario and B.C.’s government employees union have also called for it to be sold through existing liquor retailers.
Some may ask what they’ve been smoking, but based on why we got these boards in the first place, the premiers have a good case. Are liquor boards the best way to distribute cannabis? Yes, and here’s why: Liquor control boards were created so provinces could manage the legalization of another recreational drug, alcohol.
When Prohibition gripped Canada a century ago, liquor was used medicinally as well as recreationally. But many saw it as a terrible social danger. Under Prohibition (which most provinces implemented during the First World War), to consume alcohol non-medically was to consort with criminals. This led to problems such as violent criminal networks expanding trade and protecting turf.
Similarities to cannabis as a medicinal, recreational and criminally-enriching substance are clear. Nevertheless, there are some key differences.
Alcohol was criminalized at a time when many people enjoyed it, and banning it proved to be unworkable. Conversely, when cannabis was criminalized, relatively few Canadians consumed it. But as pot smoking became widespread, the demand enriched trafficking networks that had been in place for decades, moving cocaine and opiates across borders.
If this illegality heightened its appeal to the “counter culture,” it also reinforced sinister stereotypes of the drug. Consider Stephen Harper’s spurious statement that cannabis was “infinitely worse” than tobacco. Research actually shows this to be far from the case, yet Mr. Harper’s mistaken assertion is understandable. When something is illegal, it is easy to believe that it is inherently dangerous.
So how to legalize something so laden with negative baggage?
When legalizing liquor after Prohibition, provincial control systems oversaw its distribution and sale, while licensing and inspecting manufacturers. Although liquor boards are now widely reviled, they played an essential role in negating fears of social disorder that were at the heart of the prohibitionist message. Government management contradicted the widely held belief that booze would destroy society.
So those advocates of liquor control systems managing cannabis sales have historical precedent. With pot, as with liquor, government management of distribution and oversight of its manufacture would help promote a moderationist approach that should address problems quickly while calming fears that the world is coming to an end.
Cannabis is less problematic than alcohol. It usually makes users mellow rather than belligerent, and doesn’t wreak such havoc on the body. Users would be subject to no-smoking bylaws; regulations would restrict the age of consumers; technology for detecting cannabis-impaired driving is advancing; and decriminalization will decouple this mild intoxicant from networks pushing far more dangerous chemicals.
Factor in tax revenues, lower policing costs, the undermining of illegal traffickers, and the fact that people who consume legal drugs are less reluctant to disclose their use if they develop problems like addiction, and legalization provides far more benefits than risks.
Meanwhile, provincial liquor systems, however disliked they may be, have nearly a century of experience controlling the distribution of that other psychoactive substance. Adding cannabis to their mandate means an established control infrastructure can manage away the worst features of cannabis consumption that were rooted in its illegality.Report Typo/Error
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