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Editorial: U.S. pot votes show us the way

Nov 13 2012

Voters in Washington and Colorado opted to end the destructive, ineffective and costly approach to marijuana laws last week. Canadian jurisdictions should heed their examples.

The two states passed propositions legalizing marijuana, which will be regulated and taxed like alcohol. The ballot measures were controversial, but had broad support, including from prosecutors and police officials. The governments expect lower policing and justice system costs and reduced crime. Washington anticipates $500 million a year in new tax revenue.

Similar measures have broad support in this province - from five former attorneys general, the Union of B.C. Municipalities, public health officials and a long list of others. An Angus Reid poll this month found 75 per cent of British Columbians believe marijuana should be legalized, taxed and regulated.

But the futile war on marijuana use continues. Canadian governments persist in spending billions on enforcement and prisons, despite a 40-year record that shows the money is wasted.

The only clear beneficiaries are criminal gangs, who make huge profits because the drug is illegal.

In fact, police and prosecutors in B.C. are escalating the war. The B.C. Ministry of Justice last month reported an 88 per cent increase in marijuana possession charges over the last decade. In 2011, 3,774 people faced criminal charges for simple possession.

The policies aren't reducing marijuana use, or crime. B.C. Hydro estimates that 17,000 grow ops in the province are stealing electricity. At least 5,000 more are paying for power or growing outdoors.

Police, even with constantly increasing budgets, would never have enough resources to crack down on 22,000 grow ops. The numbers indicate how widespread marijuana use is in Canada.

They also highlight the lucrative illegal market, which has been estimated at up to $6 billion in this province alone. The profits have enriched gangs and sparked turf wars that have made communities more dangerous - a direct result of current marijuana laws.

Yet ignoring reality and the public, governments fight a failed war with strategies that have been proved both useless and destructive since alcohol prohibition in the U.S. in the 1920s.

None of this is to suggest marijuana is entirely benign, or that its use should be encouraged by governments. Any drug carries risks, and regulation and education are needed to help reduce negative consequences of use or abuse.

But it's widely accepted - by health experts, the courts and the public - that marijuana is less harmful than hard drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol poses a greater risk of addiction, damaged health, and crime and violence.

Legalization won't eliminate a black market, or production for export. Gangs will look for other ways to make money.

But it would reduce organized crime, save huge amounts of money in policing and court costs, allow regulation to reduce use by minors and increase government revenue.

Our marijuana policies are expensive and destructive and have been utterly ineffective for four decades.

It's time for a new approach - and Washington and Colorado have shown the way.

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