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This election, let's have a real debate about legalizing marijuana

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On the campaign trail, Prime Minister Harper repeated assertions that relaxing pot laws will lead to terrible, horrible things: "When you go down that route, marijuana becomes more readily available to children, more people become addicted to it and the health outcomes become worse." The Conservative response is to escalate the "war on drugs," even though this moral crusade has utterly failed in its attempts to eradicate drug use, while wasting public resources on law enforcement and the justice system.

This fear mongering is far behind the times. Social acceptance of pot, in spite of decades of negative propaganda, is on the rise. In a poll conducted last year for the federal government, 71 per cent of Canadians supported loosening of the country's pot laws (37 per cent supported full legalization). In Vancouver, pot is already rampant through medical dispensaries and is de facto decriminalized. But the big shift is, of course, happening south of the border, with legal pot in Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, while being decriminalized in 16 other states, while still more allow medical use. Ballot initiatives in 2016 will likely see the number of states with legal pot increase again, including heavyweights like California. It's not hard to imagine pot being legal everywhere before long.

PM Harper's antiquated tough-on-drugs rhetoric may resonate with his social conservative base, but may prove divisive for other conservative supporters of a more libertarian stripe. That is, people should be free to do something they choose as worthwhile as long as it does not harm anyone else. And to the extent that there is harm from pot, that comes precisely from the fact that it is illegal -- theft, damages, injuries and death resulting from organized crime.

In terms of human health, if anything, medicinal marijuana's positive health impacts have taken the spotlight. A wide range of health applications (glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, treatment of nausea arising from chemo, and increased food intake for AIDS patients) are known. But there is tremendous untapped potential for better research studies on health applications, which would arise in a legalized environment.

There is also scope for better understanding health impacts of recreational use. While smoking pot implies some health risk of lung cancer, the evidence on this is actually inconclusive, while some research reports anti-cancer properties from active ingredients, THC and CBD. Plus, the advent of vaporizors and edibles eliminates potential harm from inhaling carcinogens in smoke. No overdose deaths are attributable to pot, although it is possible to eat too much of that cookie and end up in Emergency. Impaired driving is also a concern.

What about addiction? Pot is not considered to be physically addictive. Daily users can go off it without feeling withdrawal symptoms. This is different than alcohol, tobacco or even coffee, all of which produce negative physical symptoms during withdrawal. That said, pot can become habitual and in extreme circumstance this could lead to problems for users in managing work and personal relationships. Gambling addiction is a much more serious problem, but last I checked our governments were pushing for every more casinos and lotteries.

Would use increase if drug laws were loosened? Probably. But if adverse health impacts of pot are minimal, this is only a problem if you buy into a "drugs are bad" morality. And if you are there, the only consistent position is to eliminate all drugs from society, including legal substances such as alcohol. This was the drive of the early 20th-century temperance movement that led to alcohol prohibition, and we all know how that turned out.

What about the children? For recreational purposes, pot should be kept away from kids, and be treated the same as alcohol. But the reality for teenagers is that it is hard to imagine pot becoming more available than it is currently. At least under a legal regime the door would be open to honest education and conversation among teens about the pros and cons.

So the real debate is whether we should decriminalize or legalize pot. My sense is that legalization is the best approach, if accompanied by appropriate regulation and taxation policies. Decriminalization stops making users into criminals, but it won't stop harms associated with organized crime. Moreover, it presumes that usage is a negative. Having a drink after work and having a toke should be treated the same in the eyes of the law.

Legalization also opens up the economic potential of pot. A legal market for pot would facilitate growing (domestic market and export), retail outlets and Amsterdam-style coffee shops (including tourism potential), and various value-added activities (vaporizors, edibles, oil products, etc). That means new demand for commercial and industrial real estate, gains in (legal) employment, and for governments, increased taxes (personal and corporate income taxes on new activity, plus sin taxes on sales) and reduced expenditures (law enforcement, courts and incarceration).

Time will tell what regulatory and tax regime makes the most sense, as U.S. states experiment. In Colorado, a state about the same size as B.C., legalization yielded $76 million in revenues in 2014. Loosening of pot laws has been accompanied by a slight decline in usage by youth and a reduction in traffic fatalities. And thousands of jobs have been created.

So the case for legalization is that it shines daylight on an activity for which there is already widespread civil disobedience; it cuts organized crime out of the picture; could drive new innovations in health; creates new centres of economic activity; and provides revenues to governments, while reducing or reallocating public expenditures arising from criminality.

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