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Editorial: Law goes to pot

  • February 13, 2020

When Ottawa legalized recreational marijuana in 2018, Canada’s bishops were dubious about claims the new law would sharply reduce youth pot consumption or eliminate the black market.

“The massive increase in cannabis use that will accompany its legalization will not produce a more just and humane society, but will only exacerbate or multiply problems already widespread in society,” the bishops said in a statement.

These still are early days in marijuana-friendly Canada, but the evidence so far suggests the bishops were right. A thriving black market persists amid no indication that young people are failing to obtain a drug that is proven to damage brain development and cause higher rates of depression and anxiety for users under age 25.

Around the time Justin Trudeau decided legalized marijuana was a good idea (before he was prime minister), he argued that regulating marijuana and creating various safeguards would, over time, eliminate the underground industry and make streets safer for teens.

But recent data from Statistics Canada indicates why that strategy hasn’t worked so far and why it may never work. The regulated marijuana industry has been unable to compete with the entrenched illicit vendors in terms of price, distribution and quality. Illegal pot costs less, remains easy to obtain and often comes in greater varieties and higher potency.

According to Statistics Canada, at the end of 2019 black-market pot was 44-per-cent cheaper than the legal product ($5.73 vs $10.30 per gram). The difference is mainly attributed to operating costs, marketing expenses and sales taxes that drive up the retail price at regulated businesses. In addition, it turns out illegal sellers are cagey entrepreneurs and have strategically lowered prices to protect their turf.

To compete with street sales, legal sellers need product that is cheaper and consistently and widely available, which means inevitable petitions to government for fewer regulations. First, though, they are rolling out cannabis edibles, vapes and beverages to boost sales and attract new consumers. But less regulation, lower prices and more types of product is a recipe for growing youth consumption.

So by legalizing marijuana the government has driven down street prices, made pot easier than ever to purchase, encouraged mass production of cannabis byproducts and made marijuana socially acceptable — while barely putting a dent in street sales.

Rather than removing marijuana from the hands of young users, Canada’s marijuana laws are creating an environment that encourages greater use of this potentially addictive drug among the people most susceptible to its harmful effects.

Canada’s bishops predicted the legalization of marijuana would neither “restrict young people’s access” to the drug nor “diminish their use of it.” 

To date, they’ve been right on both counts.

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