By Dean Midyette
The election last October may have been a referendum on Stephen Harpers policies, but when it comes to the issue of legalizing marijuana it was also a reefer-endum. Canada is now inching closer to changing laws that apply to the growing of marijuana as well as its distribution, sale and use.
Last week, a federal court judge struck down a law enacted by the previous Conservative government that barred medical marijuana patients from growing their own cannabis. In the decision, the justice stated that patients have demonstrated that it can be grown safely, with limited risk to public safety and consistent with the promotion of public health. He is suspending his decision for six months to allow the Liberal government the opportunity to table new laws surrounding medical marijuana.
In addition, Liberal MP Bill Blair, former Toronto police chief and the person tasked by Prime Minister Trudeau to oversee the legal transition, spoke at an open Senate Liberal caucus meeting that focused on legalizing marijuana. MP Blair stated that the criminal laws currently in place must be honoured and enforced until such time as they are replaced by a regulatory framework. He also stated that the initial step to legalization should be to form a provincial, territorial and federal task force to hear from public health, substance abuse and public safety experts.
Currently about three per cent of all arrests in Canada each year are for simple marijuana possession, according to Stats Canada (2013). The annual cost of enforcing marijuana possession laws is about $1.2 billion. Police deal with a marijuana possession issue every nine minutes. Marijuana arrests account for almost 70 per cent of drug offences. It costs $114,000 per year for each person incarcerated in a federal prison and even though the crime rate in Canada has decreased, the number of prisoners in the federal system has increased by 25 per cent in the last ten years. The bottom line is that legalizing marijuana will allow police to focus on more serious crimes and will result in decreased costs to taxpayers.
Early estimates show that legalizing and taxing marijuana could result in $5 billion per year in additional tax revenue. While some of this money needs to be spent on research, education and substance abuse treatment, a portion could be used to fund social services or pay down the national debt.
The Liberals need to push forward and table new legislation before the end of 2017.