Opportunity or Catastrophe? Weighing in on the Upcoming Legalization of Pot in Canada

Legalizing recreational marijuana was part of Justin Trudeau’s election campaign platform, but it wasn’t something many people took seriously. What with the common mistrust of politicians and the opposition of the very powerful Hell’s Angels gang, who stand to lose a lot of revenue if pot becomes legal, it was hard to take Trudeau’s proposition seriously.

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the Federal Health Minister had announced plans to legalize marijuana by 2017. CBC’s recent episode of Cross Country Checkup gave Canadians an opportunity to respond with a few of their thoughts on the new legislation. Many of the callers brought some great points to my attention, some of which I’ve touched on below. However, it was apparent that some callers were still buying into weed propaganda, from exaggerated health benefits to exaggerated threats. For this post I decided to pull together a few of the best arguments I’ve heard from both camps and try to find at least a little research to support their claims.

Pros of Legalization

1. Legalization could reduce an unnecessary drain on police resources

Cannabis related offences are the most common type of drug offence in Canada, especially here in British Columbia.


Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

According to Stats Canada, “in 2012, 43% of Canadians reported that they had used marijuana at some time in their lives, and 12% reported using it in the past year”. That means half of all Canadians could have been charged with possession at one time or another. Although in some places police will turn a blind eye to mere pot possession, there are still a significant number of cases reported by police. CBC explains that 

there were 57,314 marijuana possession-related “incidents” reported by police nationwide, according to Statistics Canada. More than 24,540 people were charged as a result. The year before that, 25,819 Canadians faced charges.

What’s disconcerting about this grey area of crime is that police can often use their discretion when it comes to actually prosecuting an offence. According to a recent CBC News analysis, where you live can affect if you will be charged. They report that “you’re almost 23 times more likely to face a possession charge in Kelowna, B.C., than in St. John’s.”

Marijuana use is so widespread that it is taking a massive amount of police resources to even pursue pot users. According to a report last year, “police report a pot possession incident every 9 minutes in Canada”. Inevitably, chasing down the almost endless amount of pot users and dealers takes police away from pursuing other criminal activity.

2. It could reduce crime

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) found that in the year after marijuana legalization in Colorado there was a 2.2% drop in violent crime, a 9.5% drop in burglaries, and a 8.9% drop in general crime.

Similarly, in Portugal, where all drugs have been legal since 2001, criminal activity dropped along with decriminalization. According to a report by George Murkin,

With its recategorisation of low-level drug possession as an administrative rather than criminal offence, decriminalisation inevitably produced a reduction in the number of people arrested and sent to criminal court for drug offences – from over 14,000 in the year 2000, to around 5,500-6,000 per year once the policy had come into effect.35 The proportion of drug-related offenders (defined as those who committed offences under the influence of drugs and/or to fund drug consumption) in the Portuguese prison population also declined, from 44% in 1999, to just under 21% in 2012

By decriminalizing marijuana in Canada, we could help remove the criminal element from an activity that doesn’t differ much from tobacco and alcohol consumption.

It also seems an unnecessary double standard for marijuana possession to result in a criminal record that can restrict you from traveling or finding employment for the rest of your life, when other recreational substances carry no such stigma.

3. It could increase tax revenue

According to a report from CIBC World Markets, “Canada’s federal and provincial governments could reap as much as $5 billion annually in tax revenues from the sale of legal marijuana”.

4. It could clear up misinformation

There is a lot of misinformation about the medicinal powers of weed circulating on the internet. I’m personally a huge proponent of using marijuana as a pain killer and to increase appetite, since I have several friends who have used weed as an effective alternative to more harmful pharmaceutical drugs. However, just because marijuana may be a better treatment than other medication doesn’t mean it is a cure-all miracle drug.

If you google “weed” and “cancer” you will find a plethora of articles from alternative websites claiming that marijuana can heal cancer.

Unfortunately, Cancer Research UK is quick to remind us that “there’s no robust scientific evidence to show that cannabis or cannabis oil can successfully treat cancer. And it’s possible that smoking cannabis can increase the risk of lung cancer.” While medicinal marijuana has been responsible for relieving “symptoms of the cancer, and treatment side-effects such as pain, nausea and appetite loss,” we cannot credit it for actually curing the disease.

5. It could eventually lead to a decrease in use

While their certainly are studies that point to an increase in pot use (among adults) after decriminalization in certain states, long term examples like Portugal actually point towards an eventual decrease in use.


Chart of Portugal’s drug use courtesy of Transform.

Cons to Take Into Consideration

Personally, I’m pro legalization, for many of the reasons I’ve outlined above. However, I think there is an unrealistic optimism towards pot that we need to keep in check. Regardless of its miraculous uses in medicine and elsewhere, there are several reasons why I’m thankful our government plans to move towards legislation cautiously.

1. Pot negatively affects the adolescent brain

Even pro-pot websites will warn against cannabis use during adolescence. The Cannabist recently highlighted a study co-authoreed by Francesca Filbey, which reminds users that “the brain doesn’t reach maturity until age 25 or 30, and people should hold off heavy pot use before then.”

2. It can trigger mental illness in some cases

The British Journal of Psychology sites a variety of studies that point towards a link between heavy marijuana use and mental illness. They conclude that,

An appreciable proportion of cannabis users report short-lived adverse effects, including psychotic states following heavy consumption, and regular users are at risk of dependence. People with major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are especially vulnerable in that cannabis generally provokes relapse and aggravates existing symptoms. Health workers need to recognise, and respond to, the adverse effects of cannabis on mental health.

3.Weight loss can release THC from fat cells, which could affect how we are able to police driving under the influence

Until it was brought up by a caller on CBC’s cross country checkup, I had no idea THC was stored in fat cells. Not to mention that some studies have proved that “exercise induced a small, statistically significant increase in plasma THC levels accompanied by increased plasma FFA and glycerol levels”. This only complicates the question of how we will regulate driving under the influence of weed.

Ultimately, we just don’t have enough long-term research on the effects of pot because the scientific community hasn’t been able to conduct controlled experiments using an illegal drug. Along with legalization comes a host of questions: How will driving under the influence be regulated? Will we be able to establish a dependable system that outlines the strength of a pot product, like the alcohol percentage on packaging? At what age should weed be accessible recreationally?

I’ll be watching to see how our government plans to address the many issues that will accompany legalization, but I still think it’s a move in the right direction. I’d love to hear from you. Are there any other opportunities you think I’ve overlooked or concerns I haven’t taken into consideration?

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