The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trudeau’s plan to legalize pot is an insult to Canadians

A woman waves a flag with a marijuana leaf to celebrate National Marijuana Day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. (CHRIS ROUSSAKIS/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the number of people who buy tobacco on Indian reserves. This version has been updated.

A string of broken promises — from tax cuts to electoral reform — has left Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau desperate for a quick win on one of his surviving marquee platform pledges. Thus, late last month, it was announced that his Liberal government would finally get around to legalizing marijuana, with the gimmicky kick-off date at one time even rumored to be set  for April 20 — the traditional holy day of pot smokers.

Those who consume marijuana on a regular basis have been persuaded to swallow all manner of nonsense about the drug, from its supposedly miraculous medicinal properties (vigorously denied by the Canadian medical establishment) to its ability to unlock vast reserves of creative brilliance in otherwise dormant minds. Yet even by the standards of marijuana mythology, the idea that Trudeau’s pot legalization will be a straightforward process that will effect great demonstrable improvement — or even visible change — to Canadian society is an insulting con. If the prime minister seeks to derive any political benefit from the initiative it will come from the false hope he’s sowing in the present, not the unglamorous future that awaits.

To begin, the passage of any legalization bill in Parliament will immediately force the 10 provincial governments to pass regulatory legislation of their own. As former MP Brent Rathgeber noted in an insightful column, the provinces will be free to be as restrictive or draconian about this as they please — they “could authorize only one agent to sell marijuana, locate it on top of a mountain and limit its hours to 4 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. every second Christmas Day” — given the broad constitutional powers provincial governments hold over regulating intoxicants.

Rathgeber’s words remind that “legal” is not synonymous with “anything goes.” Driving is legal, but it is still possible to commit an endless assortment of crimes — from going too fast in a construction zone to not wearing a seatbelt to displaying an out-of-date license plate — while engaging in the practice. Alcohol and tobacco have been legal for decades, yet consuming or selling is governed by an elaborate latticework of criminal, provincial, federal, and municipal statutes.

Given that  the evidence of pot’s physical harm has grown less ambiguous in recent years, no Canadian government seeks a world in which pot sales to minors, underage consumption, selling without a license, or general public exposure continues or increases. The prime minister himself has repeatedly stated that one of his primary motives in legalizing the drug is to curb its currently high rates of use. In other words, legalization could very well make pot-related persecutions more common than now, given it will herald the end of Canada’s current status quo, in which most big cities explicitly do not enforce the politically unpopular pot laws presently on the books, and the beginning of a new era of arrests, trials, and even incarcerations to demonstrate how much better Trudeau’s promised “new, stronger laws” work.

What about tax revenue? A 2016 report from Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce economist Avery Shenfeld estimated that legal pot could generate $5 billion a year in revenues– that is,  if government can kill off the black market for the drug — an enormous stipulation. As The Beaverton recently observed in a satirical article (“Liberals plan legislation to make marijuana s****er, harder to get”), nothing is more efficiently distributed than an illegal good whose illegality is not enforced. High taxes and bureaucratic micromanagement actually encourage the persistence of illegal sales, which is why many of the American states where pot is legal have been forced to cut pot taxes to price out criminals, and why a quarter of all Ontarian smokers buy tobacco on Indian reserves.

In any case,against the fashionable fantasy of a pot-fueled revenue boom, Prime Minister Trudeau has vowed any drug-generated cash will be funneled into addiction and education programs. A net profit would only be possible if legalization occurred in a context of lowered government spending on policing — which is to say, cop layoffs, since police don’t charge by the crime — and no government has given any indication that’s in the cards. Just the opposite in fact. Premier Brad Wall’s government in Saskatchewan, for instance, has gone on the record stating it anticipates “ increased enforcement costs” relating to pot-impaired driving, “whether technology or additional police officers — or both.”

Legalizing marijuana will be a bizarre undertaking, one unprecedented in modern government. Ottawa is giving its explicit seal of approval — there may indeed be literal seals of approval — to a commercial product it has explicitly stated it believes the public should not consume. The state will exert enormous effort protecting people from the risk it has willingly exposed them to, efforts that will become only more bossy and frantic as proof of pot’s dangerousness accumulates. Anti-pot laws and medical marijuana regulations which are barely being enforced at present will be swapped for an incoherent, unprofitable web of regulations that will please neither drug users nor those anticipating some great libertarian transformation of their society.

Voters will be asked to thank the prime minister for keeping his promise.