The goals of legalizing cannabis in Canada are two-fold: reducing criminal involvement in the sale of cannabis and reducing its availability to youth.
But I have some doubt about these objectives of the government. Research shows that the illegal cannabis market is actually mostly made up of sellers and suppliers who do not have any ties to organized crime. And globally, studies have shown that most young people get their drugs through social networks and not directly from large scale suppliers.
So, if legalization is unlikely to change youth access to cannabis and there didn’t seem to be a need to police cannabis sales, what are the real reasons for legalizing cannabis?
Could it be the corporate market-driven forces of neoliberalism?
Or perhaps an electoral strategy designed to woo young voters?
Whatever the real reasons, the official goals of legalization are based on faulty premises. Let’s look at both of the government’s claims.
Keeping cannabis away from youth?
It has been 50 years since the use of cannabis began shifting from the margins to the mainstream. This shift is marked by the rising prevalence of use and greater social tolerance of users by nonusers.
Legalizing cannabis will not curtail high use rates nor contribute to reversing noted normalizing trends. Illegal market distribution will continue due — at least in part — to overly restrictive regulations.
Many users are ineligible to purchase legal cannabis due to age restrictions. The age restrictions exclude youth from the protections of legality and ensure continuation of unregulated access. Other users will maintain illegal market sources out of loyalty, distrust, and refusal to be subject to retailers’ higher prices.
The goal of keeping legal cannabis out of the hands of youth will continue to be thwarted by social networks of supply.
We can learn a lot from the experience of other jurisdictions. For example, since Washington State legalized the sale of recreational cannabis in 2012, diversion of the product to the illegal market has been a major focus of state regulatory efforts.
Small-scale trafficking offences in Washington State were substantially reduced. But high taxes on production and price mark-up by retailers created the conditions that ensure continuation of a thriving illegal cannabis market.
One study found illegal market prices and supply chains are still preferred, especially by racial minority youth.
The idea that we can decrease use by young people is surely no more realistic in a regulated market than the faulty premise that criminal controls prevent the use of cannabis by youth. Displacement of illegal supply sources will be offset by legal cannabis diverted to underage consumers.
The quest to prevent the use of cannabis by youth, whether under prohibition or enlightened regulation, is a self-defeating one that continues the tradition of neglecting decades of sociological research.
New understandings of drug use needed
The change in law supports a view of cannabis consumers as rational and capable of responsible decisions. Exercising moderation and discretion quite effectively prevents most users from developing cannabis use-related problems.
A more nuanced understanding of substance use is needed to usher in an era of new policies for drugs. And we need to move beyond this uninformed view that equates to “just say no.”
Evidence-based policy development for cannabis requires articulation of more informed and realistic goals of harm reduction, as opposed to crime prevention and the preoccupation with preventing use by youth.