On Justin and half-freeing the weed

Plus ... Colby Cosh makes his own case for legalizing marijuana
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau votes on Motion 312 in the House of Commons on Wednesday Sept. 26, 2012. Conservative backbench MP Stephen Woodworth’s controversial motion to appoint a committee to study the definition of a human being goes down to defeat in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Aaron Haspel, a little-known blogger who would have been world-famous as an epigrammist if he’d been born in 1880, observed the other day that “Revolution is seeded by abuse and watered by reform.” The bit after the “and” is a compact restatement of one of history’s few persistent patterns that may deserve to be called a law: namely, that the incremental redress and repair of longstanding injustice only whets the appetite for immediate, total, violent change. Even the best among us (by which I obviously mean me) are prone to this greedy, unconservative, unhelpful sort of reaction.

Case in point: our Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, has taken what’s perceived as an incredibly courageous step in the direction of small-L-liberalized drug policy, leapfrogging past decriminalization of marijuana to a “You should just be able to buy it if you want it and you’re a dang grown-up” position. As with the analogous same-sex marriage issue, public opinion has migrated so quickly that the more I study the Liberal stance, which would have been unspeakable in about 1995, the more annoyed I am by its hedges and cautions and yes-buts. Let’s go all the way! Knock down the pubs and replace them with Dutch-style coffeehouses! It’s the right thing to do! Gawd, why are we still having this discussion? Justin’s a big wuss! Wuss wuss wuss!

My own position is that in legalizing marijuana it would make a lot of sense to give it the exact legal status of edamame or chrysanthemums. This is not what Justin or anybody else within a mile of power is proposing: they want to legalize-and-tax-and-regulate. And when Justin says “tax and regulate,”  he doesn’t mean “…in the same way as a potato chip.” He means it ought to be taxed and regulated like tobacco and alcohol, as if it were no less harmful to public health and the general welfare than those things. He should ask his favourite emergency-room physician whether he would prefer a world in which people have to sip Jägermeister furtively in their homes but business meetings and stag parties happen in festive, ubiquitous marijuana “bars.”

The most famous and effective Liberal argument-slash-plan for legalization was crafted early this year by the policy committee of the party’s B.C. wing. As a legalizer one reads the resolution passed by the national party at its 2012 biennial, included in the newer document, and cheers: Liberals believe that the Canadian people have voted heavily for marijuana with their lungs without ever having much opportunity to do so with their ballots, and are denouncing the lost billions in wealth exhausted in a farcical invented war between pot producers and traffickers on one side and the police and courts on the other.

It is when you get into the details filled in later that you begin to realize the new world may involve almost as much noisome expense as the old. The Liberals, it turns out, are friendly to marijuana if it’s a half-ounce split between buddies in Comox, but they wouldn’t dream of retiring from the marijuana theatre in the War on Drugs:

Out of respect to other countries that may not share Canada’s progressive views, we recommend the government maintain a zero-tolerance of any import or export of marijuana—including countries and states that have decriminalized or ended prohibition.

To enforce this zero-tolerance policy, we recommend dramatically increasing criminal penalties for the export of marijuana and reallocation of some domestic marijuana enforcement resources to border patrol and intelligence. The vast majority of these resources would be allocated at US border crossings.

Disappointing. But at least we’re creating a domestic market to capture all the economic benefits that pot liberation offers! Except you’ll only be allowed to grow like six or so plants unless you have a licence to operate as a pot grower—maybe eight plants, maybe 12, we’ll figure it out as we go—and you won’t be allowed to buy, use, store, or carry more than four ounces of the stuff, with higher-than-ever penalties for having five. The people we were investigating and arresting as “traffickers” will now have to be investigated and arrested as potential exporters, and you will recall we’re taking a zero-tolerance line on exporting. It makes one wonder where those police resources freed up for reallocation to the border are going to come from.

What are the potential harms of reforming marijuana law my way: by simply eliminating the words “marijuana,” “cannabis,” and “tetrahydrocannabinol” from all federal statutes? Warning: if you bring up a youth access argument I will laugh in your face and tell you to take another look back at Rehtaeh Parsons’ Twitter account. It is not the letter of the law that decides whether minor children abuse any substance to the point of derangement: it is the prevailing social environment, the total number of half-decent parents the child has paying close attention, and sometimes, probably, just the child’s inborn personality.

It is my suspicion that we have more young marijuana users now than we did when I was a teenager: this is not attributable to any change in our law, but almost entirely to popular culture, just like the corresponding declines in smoking and drunk driving. It is my conviction that the mass cultural dialogue is more honest now about the actual danger of cannabis addiction, which amounts to “If you smoke a ton of pot you will become a pothead—which means ‘not less healthy in any quantifiable way, but slightly torpid and passive mentally, and almost certainly a crashing bore.’ ” After tens of thousands of studies there is almost nothing in the medical literature that contradicts this basic picture, and at his bloodshot-eyed worst The Pothead looks quite attractive next to the carnival horrors of The Tobacco Smoker and The Alcoholic.

We can, one supposes, make a few legal arrangements concerning cannabis and THC for the comfort of brain-damaged soccer moms and the newspaper columnists who speak for them. Do you want to have the death penalty for selling marijuana within 200 feet of a school? You are preposterous if you think that matters, but, fine, I will gladly trade a few exemplary guillotinings of the careless for a proper marijuana liberalization. Should we have licensing for marijuana sellers, making a contract with dealers and shops that binds them to check for ID and suffer medieval consequences if they sell to a minor? As long as the license regime doesn’t become a repugnant permanent cartel like city taxi commissions, we can live with that. Again: if you’re a crappy parent, none of this will prevent your child from hot-knifing blinding quantities of hash at a bush party. But we can take these steps explicitly for the people who are invincibly unaware of the world we live in. We’ll call it the Calm Down, You Dolts Act.

The important point is that regulating sales, if we want to, does not imply that we need to do anything at all to limit, suppress, or monitor production and transport of marijuana. It is only the lingering superstition that a sack of pot is somehow inherently more menacing than a sack of peas that would require us to regulate every step in the supply chain. Note that in their white paper on weed the B.C. Liberals hope to tax pot at “30-35%” (including existing sales taxes). They do recognize that the more they torque the price, the more they will spare the “black market” they are hoping to trample: they have partly absorbed the principle that the best way to eliminate black markets is to decree them un-black. But in fact it is not even clear that 30-35% would be the optimum tax incidence from the standpoint of collecting maximum revenue for the state; this number seems to represent nothing but the instinct that a sin must have sin taxes attached, as night followeth day.

The Conservatives made fun of Justin for making legalization one of his “first policy priorities.” (So too, let the record show, did those hyper-rationalist evidence-loving “progressives” in the NDP.) They’re all about jobs and economic growth, those Conservatives. But if you regard marijuana as mostly harmless, which is what it is, it soon becomes agonizing to imagine the jobs and economic growth that would explode into existence if we made being good at growing marijuana, or even just being very knowledgeable about it, into a career path.

How many people does the wine business employ in a country which has about a postage stamp’s worth on surface area on which grapes can be grown? How many people are kept on a payroll by wine in some way—by vintners, fancy restaurants, liquor stores, wine-kit shops, makers of corkscrews and wine buckets and wine racks, wine trade associations, and heaven knows what else? All that is required to create an equal or larger field of commercial activity almost overnight, and you cannot possibly doubt that it would happen, is for us to just stop being such ninnies about marijuana.

There is a first-mover advantage to be captured here, to say nothing of the tourism dollars to be gained from treating marijuana more or less like icewine. You will have noticed the weird rhetoric in the Liberal policy paper about respecting “countries that may not share Canada’s progressive views” and immediately emphasizing the need to crush exports even to those countries that do share them. But it ought to be obvious that, in time, there will exist a licit, open international marijuana trade that resembles today’s international wine trade. Since there is no good reason on earth to treat marijuana and wine differently, and it is hard to see awareness of this shrinking rather than increasing, the treatment they do receive seems bound to become more similar as time goes by. This might be naive optimism, but my guess is that it will happen in parts of the secular West faster than most of us imagine. (Revolution is watered by reform!)

And in many ways British Columbia is already the France of weed. But imagine if local growers were allowed to operate in the open, establish the kind of historic brand continuity that exists in the wine business, develop customized cannabiculture techniques through intergenerational trial and error, define and exploit the individual terroirs of different parts of the country, establish appellations contrôlées… is this something we really don’t want, to be the world’s acknowledged senior master creators of an “intoxicant”? We don’t want future connoisseurs to fly from Earth’s four corners to the Okanagan and Niagara Valleys the way they flock to the Côtes du Rhône or Sonoma? Yes, I say, legalize marijuana, and, yes, do it for the children: not to make them wait until they are 18 to smoke it, but to give them good jobs studying the stuff as a consumer product, cultivating it, and selling it to the world.