Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time to legalize marijuana: Douglas Instructor

By Graeme Bowbrick

Recently I and three other former British Columbia attorneys general called for marijuana to be legalized. To be clear, we are not merely advocating decriminalization; we are going further and arguing for outright legalization.

In taking this position we have simply added our voices to the many others who have been arguing for legalization for much longer than we have. What distinguishes us from others, however, is that we have all served as this province’s senior legal official at some point between 1991 and 2005.

So why have we come to this position? Put simply, it’s because the criminal prohibition of marijuana hasn’t worked. Further, the current legal approach to marijuana has come at a cost.

Marijuana and organized crime

This cost goes beyond the dollars required to investigate, prosecute and punish those who produce, distribute and use marijuana: we are increasingly paying an unacceptable price in violence in our communities.

Prohibition has made marijuana a more valuable commodity than it might otherwise be, and this has attracted the attention of organized crime, which has profited handsomely. And where organized crime goes, violence is sure to follow. This is what happened with alcohol during the Prohibition Era in the United States.

Ultimately the prohibition of alcohol in the United States came to an end because the prohibition policy – indeed the law itself – lacked credibility and legitimacy. Put simply, most Americans didn’t support alcohol prohibition and indeed large numbers simply flouted the law.

And so it is with marijuana in Canada, and no more so than in British Columbia, where it is estimated that one in 10 British Columbians has used marijuana (and this likely a conservative estimate). But support for legalization goes far beyond those who partake, as indicated by a recent Angus Reid poll showing 77 percent of British Columbians believe our current approach isn’t working.

The American reaction

There are those who argue that whatever our views in Canada may be, we cannot make changes to our marijuana policy without concern for reaction from our neighbour and most important trading partner, the United States. If we legalize marijuana, the argument goes, the American reaction will be swift and negative and Canada will pay a price in cross-border travel and commerce.

However, this argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not a single uniform American view on this issue, as evidenced by the fact that there are now 14 states that have decriminalized possession of marijuana in personal use amounts, and at last count there were 12 states that had initiatives proposing liberalization of marijuana laws appearing on ballots this coming November.

A failed policy

So the tide has turned on this issue. We can see not only that marijuana prohibition has failed in Canada – and that this is reflected in public opinion here – but that even in the United States opinion is shifting.

One would think, then, that the time has come to acknowledge that prohibition is a failed policy and move toward legalization. Unfortunately our federal government sees things differently, and when it comes to marijuana prohibition, it is redoubling its efforts, passing legislation that, for example, introduces mandatory minimum prison terms for people convicted of minor marijuana offences (like growing as few as six marijuana plants).

It is simply not rational to continue with – and indeed escalate – a policy that has bolstered the profits of organized crime, led to increasing levels of gang-related violence, has utterly failed to diminish the use of marijuana and is no longer supported by most Canadians.

I and the other former attorneys-general aren’t suggesting there is no harm associated with marijuana use, and we’re certainly not advocating its use. We are saying that the principal and valid concerns about marijuana use are health concerns – so we should abandon the policy of criminal prohibition, and opt instead to legalize it and regulate it in much the same way we treat alcohol or tobacco.

Prohibition has failed. It is time to legalize marijuana.

  • Graeme Bowbrick, Q.C., is the Legal Studies program Coordinator at Douglas College and former Attorney General of British Columbia.
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