Legalization of Marijuana: How We Got Here

September 11, 2013

When thousands of Liberals voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution to legalize marijuana in 2012, they did so based on considerable evidence that the current prohibitionist system is broken, and that policies to regulate the substance must be cost-effective and better both at keeping it out of the hands of young people and keeping it from devastating young lives with exaggerated criminal penalties.

When cannabis was first prohibited in Canada in 1923, it was done without debate or justification. Very little additional government review of the policy was conducted until the late 1960’s when the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (Le Dain Commission) was struck. When that Commission completed its extensive four-year mandate in 1972, it concluded that the costs, particularly to young people of a policy of prohibition of simple possession were not justified by the potential for harm of marijuana. The Commission recommended a repeal of the prohibition against the simple possession of cannabis.

Thirty years later, and with little actual change in public policy with respect to marijuana, the Senate of Canada’s Special Committee on Illegal Drugs came to largely the same conclusions in 2002, arguing that the widespread use of cannabis and its related costs to law enforcement (the Committee estimated the annual cost of drug enforcement at between $700-millon and $1-billion, with more than three-quarters of annually reported police incidents relating to marijuana) could not be ignored. It cited research to show that nearly 1-million young people had tried the substance in the previous year, and that the existing system was not deterring that trend.

We know from Statistics Canada that the burden on law enforcement hasn’t lessened since 2002, and that police have recorded more than 475,000 incidents of marijuana-related offences since 2006. That is as close an approximation as is statistically available to the number of marijuana-related arrests in Canada, which constitutes a significant amount of police resources – not to mention compromising future employment opportunities for young people who get saddled with criminal records. On top of this, the Harper Conservatives introduced mandatory minimum sentences for pot-related offences in Bill C-10 in 2012, which will only lead to greater incarceration costs moving forward.

And just last April we learned that UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) has found that Canada leads the developed world in cannabis use among teenagers – a shocking statistic from which it isn’t hard to conclude that prohibition is failing to keep pot out of the hands of Canadian youth. In fact, UNICEF calls for public policy attention to fix this situation in a manner similar to how Canada has successfully lowered youth tobacco smoking.

Taken all together, we believe it is time to change how we confront marijuana use in Canada. It is time to have an adult conversation with Canadians and in Parliament about this issue- a debate that is mature and driven by facts and evidence.  I believe Canadians are ready for this. Let us know if you agree.

Sean Casey

Liberal Justice Critic