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  • Adham Rahman

Canada's highs: Experimenting with legalisation

The case for the liberalisation of cannabis laws across the West has increased over the past decade, with decriminalisation proving successful in countries like Portugal, and even the UK allowing the (albeit, heavily restricted) medicinal use of oils.

Like any other drug Cannabis does have health risks, but with it being the most-used illegal drug in the UK, prohibition has clearly failed. This means the only beneficiaries are criminals that own the market. The consequences are widespread, with trends showing that unregulated markets are driving up THC concentration (the psychoactive ingredient which can lead to the negative side-effects of cannabis use, including mental health issues and addiction). In 2015, an estimated £31m and over 1 million hours of police time were wasted on enforcing cannabis laws.

In 2018, Trudeau’s Liberal Party made Canada the second and most populous country to acknowledge that legalising the recreational use of cannabis, within a regulated market, can resolve many of these issues, making itself a national experiment for the world to watch. There are obvious benefits. The criminal justice system will waste less time adjudicating and prosecuting, THC concentration can be regulated, and taxation, which takes the profit away from criminals and invests it into healthcare/education about drug-use. Estimates for what such a tax in the UK could raise range between £1bn - £3.5bn. Decriminalisation also ends the racial injustice of the ‘war on drugs’, with the police using stop and search powers for drugs on black and Asian people more frequently than white people.

Since the Canadian Cannabis Act was only passed in 2018 it is still too early to measure its social impact, but we can look to Colorado, which legalised cannabis in 2014. The benefits include a decrease in teen cannabis-use, and increased use by under 30s has correlated with a decrease in alcohol consumption (which is unhealthier and more socially damaging). It also provides jobs for young people who have previously worked within the black market, as companies search for skilled growers to produce the best quality cannabis.

However, there have unsurprisingly been some teething-problems in this Canadian national experiment to legalise recreational cannabis. Whilst the policy’s aim was to replace the illicit trade with a safe alternative, over-regulation, taxation and a lack of supply has meant that current users continue to buy illegal cannabis. Licensed shops are regulated in every way possible – with all products in plain plastic tubs which only carries a warning label, nothing to indicate quality or THC concentration. This has made it unappealing to some new users, but many have still made use of the new legal novelty. Despite Prime Minister Trudeau saying that taxation would be minimal, it has still resulted in legal cannabis being about $3 more per gram, which adds up for regular users that make up the bulk of the black markets customers. Supply of legal cannabis is greatly restricted by the small number of shops (Toronto has four shops for three million people), which sometimes run out of stock. All of these factors mean that many regular users have simply gone back to the more convenient black market.

There is no single way of regulating the market – Canada and certain US states each have their own models, often according to how local authorities regulate drugs like tobacco and alcohol. Canada also already had dispensaries, whereas the UK has no similar infrastructure to build upon. There are vast differences between the UK and Canada in the attitudes towards cannabis consumption, which would need to be considered when creating a market to effectively tackle illicit trade. Legalising the recreational use of cannabis has been a positive and beneficial move for Canada which the rest of the world should certainly follow, whilst ensuring there are lessons learned from how over-regulation allows the black market to continue to thrive.

Image - Unsplash.

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