With California gearing up for a vote next month on Proposition 19, a groundbreaking ballot measure that would fully legalize marijuana, a drug-policy expert is disappointed that Canada is moving in the opposite direction.
Dr. Richard Mathias, a professor at UBC’s school of population and public health, said it doesn’t make sense that the Conservative government is continuing to push for mandatory prison sentences for cannabis possession.
The physician was referring to Bill S-10, a Senate legislation that passed second reading on September 29. The bill is a reincarnation of two similar measures that previously died in the House of Commons.
“You have to be completely blind to not realize that truly harmful drugs are tobacco and alcohol,” Mathias told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We’ve shown from a public-health perspective that we can deal with those harms. When I went to medical school, which is a fair number of years now, we used to smoke in class. Medical students now look at me with wide open eyes—you know, how bad could that be? The culture has changed completely. And we can do the same things for the harms that drugs are causing.”
He said that is the reason why he considers California’s Proposition 19—or the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010—as “extremely enlightened”.
“What prohibition does is it takes away the tools that public health has used so successfully in terms of tobacco and, to a lesser extent, alcohol and completely ties our hands so we cannot use these tools to try to prevent the harms that are associated with drugs,” Mathias, a member of the Health Officers’ Council of B.C., said.
Proposition 19 is one of a number of initiatives that qualified for a vote in the general election to be held in California on November 2.
The proposed legislation seeks to allow persons 21 years old or older to possess one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana for personal use. The substance cannot be consumed in public view. It will also permit the cultivation of small amounts of cannabis in each private residence or parcel of property.
The measure will likewise regulate activities related to the sale and distribution of marijuana. Licensed cannabis distributors will pay all applicable federal, state, and local taxes.
According to the initiative bill, there is an estimated US$15 billion in illegal marijuana transactions in California each year. An official voter information guide noted that cannabis taxes could generate US$1.4 billion annually.
In Canada, there are no mandated prison sentences for drug offences. This could change if the Conservative government succeeds with Bill S-10.
The measure provides a range of penalties. One seeks to impose a minimum of six months’ imprisonment for cultivating at least six marijuana plants.
On October 7 this year, the Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy released a report detailing the failure of the U.S. federal government’s cannabis-prohibition policy.
Coauthored by the centre’s founder, Evan Wood, the document showed that even with more money for antidrug campaigns, the potency of cannabis in the U.S. increased by approximately 145 percent from 1990 to 2007. The retail cost of marijuana also decreased from US$37 per gram in 1990 to US$15 per gram in 2007.
Marijuana has also remained almost universally available to American youth, despite the past 30 years of prohibition. The report indicated that cannabis use among Grade 12 students rose from 27 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2008. Among 19- to 28-year-olds, use increased from 26 percent to 29 percent in the same period.
The paper noted that the U.S. federal antidrug budget saw a 600-percent inflation-adjusted increase in two decades, from US$1.5 billion in 1981 to US$18 billion in 2002.
In a phone interview, Wood, a UBC medical professor, noted that the California experiment with Proposition 19 has enormous potential.
“If they prove that you can successfully tax and regulate cannabis and the world does not come to an end, I think it’s going to generate interest throughout North America,” Wood told the Straight.
According to Wood, measures like Bill S-10 speak to the “discordance between what we know from a scientific perspective of what we should be doing about the drug problem and what the average citizen thinks”.
“Your average Canadian is frustrated about the drug problem, and that makes it politically popular to propose tough-on-crime measures,” Wood said. “But the reality of the situation is, the $5 billion that they’re proposing to spend on new prisons will do nothing to improve community health and safety.”
He also said that advocates for drug legalization want to counter one myth.
“The alternative to prohibition is not full, free legalization, easy access to drugs, but, rather, strict regulatory tools in a legal framework like age restrictions, operating hours, warning labels on things, taxation,” Wood said.”These are actually compatible with not only increasing or creating tax revenue for governments but also decreasing the availability of drugs to young people.”