Weeding out the real issues 

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Cannabis has been much in the news recently — though mostly to do with the growing pains Vancouver is having as it deals with an explosion of medicinal marijuana dispensaries over the last few years.

It's a rather amazing tale really as you consider that the dispensaries are actually illegal.

"... possession and sale of cannabis is a criminal offence, and possession of as few as six marijuana plants carries the risk of prosecution and up to 14 years in prison, wrote former B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant in the Globe and Mail recently.

"Or not," he continued. "Because in Vancouver, the police have made it clear they will not enforce medical marijuana laws against store operators except when there are other public order considerations.

And let's just pause for a moment and ask where these dispensaries are getting their supply? There are very few legal sources after all.

But facing a growing number of storefronts the City of Vancouver decided to step in and introduce a regulatory framework to manage the growth.

Said Vancouver's City manager Penny Ballam, "We're doing our very best to bring some order to this."

The federal government views the selling of marijuana in dispensaries as illegal, even if it is for medicinal purposes and has been outspoken in its views as Vancouver moves ahead with it's plan, which would see dispensaries pay a $30,000 business fee to operate, among other conditions. A cash grab you wonder?

What is the city doing regulating an illegal activity? And one that has no-tax framework in place such as we have on cigarettes and alcohol. Perhaps it is being forced into the fray because of the mess the Canadian government created as federal law requires, for the most part, that cannabis for medicinal use be delivered in the mail by licensed, registered producers.

The 2014 Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, makes doctors responsible for prescribing the drug. After patients get a prescription, they purchase their medicine from one of 16 producers across the country licensed by Health Canada (most of whom are entrepreneurs with no ties to the medical or pharmaceutical industry). This has created access problems hence the growth of these dispensaries. It's Economic 101.

One Vancouver dispensary put in a vending machine. I'm sure you are not surprised to learn that as of January it had grossed more than a million dollars.

Federal law restricts medical marijuana use to end-of-life care or treatment of severe pain or muscles spasms from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or disease, severe arthritis, epilepsy or nausea, pain or weight loss from cancer, HIV/AIDS or anorexia.

It's clear, however, from the stories in the media and on social media that many, many of those accessing these dispensaries do not fall into the above categories.

The pros and cons of legalizing cannabis are for another column. But there is no getting away from the fact that as a nation we are getting closer to legalizing the drug. Surely if it was legalized the rules and regulations around who can use it and how it was obtained would be clear and the City of Vancouver would not be in the position it now finds itself in?

However, legalizing it comes with it's own set of problems and issues as you will read in this week's cover feature, "Cannabis and compromises."

Beginning in 2009, due to a number of events, marijuana became de facto legalized through the commercialization of the medical marijuana industry in Colorado.

By the end of 2012, there were over 100,000 medical marijuana cardholders and 500 licensed dispensaries operating in that state. There were also licensed cultivation operations and edible manufacturers. In November 2012, Colorado voters passed Constitutional Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational purposes for anyone over the age of 21. The amendment also allowed for licensed marijuana retail stores, cultivation operations and edible manufacturers.

According to a report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a U.S. federal drug-enforcement program that co-ordinates local, state and federal police in enforcing drug laws, a long list of social issues are accompanying the legalization of cannabis in Colorado.

Here are a few statistics gathered by the organization:

• In 2014 Colorado State Patrol statistics found that 77 per cent of total Driving Under the Influence citations involved marijuana, while 41 per cent involved just marijuana.

• The 2014 reported sales of marijuana in Colorado include 109,578 pounds of medical marijuana flower, 36,600 pounds of recreational marijuana flower, 1,964,917 units of medical edible products, and 2,850,733 units of recreational edible products.

• In 2014, when marijuana retail businesses began operating, marijuana-related calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center increased over 70 per cent from 2013.

• In just one year when Colorado legalized marijuana (2013), past-month marijuana use among adults increased 32.8 per cent

• In just one year when Colorado legalized marijuana (2013), past-month marijuana use among those ages 12 to 17 years increased 6.6 per cent.

• The Colorado Department of Education reported a 34-per-cent increase in drug-related suspensions and expulsions from school from the years before pot laws were liberalized compared to after.

Colorado may not be getting everything right but the cannabis situation in Canada is a mess — all levels of government need to take a serious look at the situation and introduce regulations that help those in need, cut out the criminal element and tax it like alcohol and tobacco.


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