Seventeen per cent of Canadians report having used cannabis in the past year, despite it being illegal. Prohibition, it seems, is hardly stopping people from using cannabis.
For perspective, cigarettes are available at every corner store and the Canadian Cancer Society reports that tobacco use stands at 18 per cent. When I was in university, one of my favourite people was a member of Parliament who represented a very conservative riding yet held very liberal views on cannabis law reform. On the one hand, he would maintain that your mind is how you experience the world and I can’t see why anyone would allow chemicals to dull the one chance they get to experience it. But then he would turn on a dime: Let’s be honest, this government I’m serving can’t even keep cannabis out of prisons. Even in a tiny area guarded with guns, barbed wire, and four metre high concrete walls, we can’t enforce the drug laws. Who here really thinks we can keep cannabis out of our sparsely populated country while respecting people’s privacy and freedom of movement?
The price of prohibition
His comments were reinforced recently when the Saskatchewan media reported actual examples of government’s failing to keep cannabis out of prisons. This news, given that prisons are purposely designed to be secure, should prompt us to ask whether we are being rational in our attempts to prohibit cannabis from an entire country that is the world’s second largest and most sparsely populated.
We must further ask if the cure prohibition has side effects that are worse than the drug disease.
The conservative C2C Journal to the neo-Marxist This magazine have recently published arguments similar to that made by the Member of Parliament. In a thoughtful C2C article entitled The Price of Pot Prohibition, Peter Jaworski gives a picture of the difficulties inherent in attempting to prohibit cannabis use.
In fact, a 2002 Senate Special Report found that, in 2006, authorities seized only 50 tonnes, or six per cent, of an estimated 800 tonnes of cannabis which circulated in Canada, which would seem to indicate that prohibition is to the cannabis trade as flies are to elephants: annoying but mostly irrelevant.
But, prohibitionists may maintain, if 17 per cent of Canadians smoke pot now, imagine if it was legal. Legislation decriminalizing cannabis use would be an implicit endorsement by the state, and the problem would get much worse than it is already.
However, the facts say otherwise: In the U.S., famous for its war on drugs and with an estimated half million people in prison for drug offences, 12.2 per cent use cannabis, while in the Netherlands, where people are able to legally buy and smoke cannabis in public, 5.4 per cent are users.
Further, so long as cannabis is illegal but in common use, an industry exists in which people can’t access the police and court system for the enforcement of contracts and protection of their property. You can hardly report to the police that your runner ran off with your cannabis, or tell a judge that your grower has breached his contract. As a result, contracts and property rights in the drug business are enforced in much the same way as they are in the wider economy of Somalia; by people taking the law into their own hands.
Worse still, the burden of such lawlessness in not evenly spread across society. While middle-class parents may take some comfort from knowing that drugs are illegal, it is less well-to-do kids who are tempted by gangs enjoying the high profits associated with the dangerous but lucrative business of dealing drugs outside the law.
A bad deal
Finally, while economic projections are notoriously inaccurate, the best ones we have suggest that prohibition is a bad deal. Based on current usage and values, Jaworski estimates that a tax on legal cannabis could generate between $1 and $3 billion, plus half a billion dollars saved from not having to enforce prohibition. For perspective, raising the GST by one percentage point would raise about $3 billion.
Based on work by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, the social costs of health care and lost productivity from cannabis is estimated at approximately $500 million.
While legalizing cannabis could double usage (although this seems unlikely as Canada already has the highest usage rates in the industrialized world), the country would still be richer thanks to the tax revenue and enforcement reductions.
It may just be time to kill the sacred cow of prohibition.
By David Seymour