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Options for Marijuana Regulation

Date: 20 November 2015
Audience: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Federal Cabinet
Issue statement:
Regulation of marijuana has been an ongoing issue for decades (Hartman et al., 2016). Legislative approaches vary widely from criminal prohibition at one end to unrestricted access and production at the other end (Albanese & Brittan, 2016).
Canadian teens and children are described as the highest users of illegal marijuana, in a United Nations Children’s Fund report (Adamson, 2013). The high demand for marijuana in Canada put drug dealers as its sole providers and led to expanding the black-market (Cotter, Greenland, & Karam, 2013). Enforcement of cannabis criminalization is costly, has failed to significantly prevent its use or minimize potential adverse effects, it may result in serious social harms for individuals convicted of cannabis offenses (Kirst et al., 2015)
The purpose of this briefing note is to discuss different marijuana regulation options and presents recommendations supported by the best available evidence to the prime minister and the Federal Government.
Background:
Marijuana is the most widely used illicit substance despite almost a century of prohibition in Canada (Rotermann & Langlois, 2015). Among developed countries, Canadian youth has the highest rate of marijuana (George & Vaccarino, 2015). Although the Public opinion on the use of marijuana was conservative in the mid-1980s in Canada, it has significantly changed during the 1990’s with a dominant liberal shift (Moynihan, 2006). By extrapolating the results of a forum poll published in 2015, it is suggested that about 900,000 new pot smokers might join the five millions who smoke pot at least once a month, about a 19 percent increase (Savas, 2001). However, these results need to be examined carefully before making any generalizations.
Any policy change will affect a number of players; marijuana users will be affected by the availability of marijuana and any price change, black market share will be influenced by how the new policy will be implemented, licensed producers and distributors are expected to be grow as the demand of marijuana increases. The mentioned players are likely to steer the public opinion towards a policy change that serves their interests.
There are many institutions and regulatory bodies involved in marijuana regulation; Health Canada as the federal department responsible for maintaining and improvement of health (Hartman et al., 2016),  Federal Government plans legalizations at the national level, Provincial Governments and municipalities are responsible for implementation, regulation and practice of the legalization (Rehm, Crépault, & Fischer, 2016), Law Enforcement as the body responsible for the enforcement of the federal marijuana laws (Hajizadeh, 2017), political parties which stand at different distances when it comes to marijuana regulation (The Fifth Estate, 2015), Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), which will be responsible for the taxation process (CBC News, 2015).
Marijuana-policy debate is also influenced by the interests of different institutions and advocacy groups, Wallach and Rauch in 2016 mentioned that interest of the following group interests are likely to affect marijuana legalization debate: Moralists and public-health advocates with anti-legalization interests, Commercial and gray-market interests, law-enforcement and other governmental organizations. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) released a report in October 2014 offering evidence‐based conclusions about cannabis harm reduction (Room, Fischer, Hall, Lenton, & Reuter, 2010). Mental health researchers and providers in the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Pediatric Society and other organizations raised their concerns about the side effects of cannabis (Grant, 2017).
Analysis:
Regulating marijuana has become a political focus in the last few years (MacQueen, 2013). It is considered as a controversial issue due ethical, health and the associated legislative and logistic issues (Hajizadeh, 2016). As the available evidence supports that criminalization approach results in social and economic harm without achieving the intended use reduction (Kirst et al., 2015), this option in not recommended, leaving the choice between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization means that the personal marijuana use is still illegal and can be fined but not classified as a criminal offense, while legalization indicates that marijuana would be legally available and governments will regulate its use and sale of like tobacco and alcohol (Miurse, 2017).
Economic Impact:
The main economic factor that favor legalization of marijuana is the increased tax revenue could be added to the Canadian economy (Glauser, 2012). This argument is supported by the results Colorado’s first legalization experience that showed a significant tax revenue in the first year after implementation (Colorado Department of Revenue, 2015). Marijuana legalization in Canada will significantly increase taxation revenue as marijuana is the second most consumed substance behind alcohol (Hajizadeh, 2016). Furthermore, legalization could decrease spending on the enforcement of the federal marijuana laws (Cotter et al., 2013).
Health Impact:
The literature does identify some marijuana acute and chronic health effects; Acute risks include accidents: impaired cognitive functioning while intoxicated, anxiety and dysphoria while Long-term risks include dependence and mental health problems (Caulkins et al., 2015). Legalization pose some health risks because of the increased use, potential abuse (Joffe & Yancy, 2004) and the possibility that minors can purchase and use marijuana (Salomonsen-Sautel, Sakai, Thurstone, Corley, & Hopfer, 2012).
Social Impacts: 
Decriminalization allows personal possession to be ticketed or fined, criminal record will be used only for larger-scale production and distribution (The Economist, 2014). This option was proposed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, police will have the discretion to proceed with either criminal or civil charges (CTV News, 2013). This option helps decreasing the social harms but may lead to inconsistent policy implementation.
In contrast to decriminalization, criminal penalties are totally removed in legalization option. Avoiding barriers to travel, employment and education has a positive impact on an individual’s social life and productivity (Abuse, 2014).
As there is no strong evidence to support one of the two approaches, Canada can manage that risk to some degree by looking to the lessons learned internationally with marijuana decriminalization and legalization experiences. The regulation of alcohol and tobacco also provides valuable lessons, such as the efficacy of price controls and marketing restrictions to control rates of use and the need to balance government interests between controlling use and generating taxation revenues.4,20 These lessons apply to varying degrees across the range of criminalization and legalization models. A selection of these models is presented below, recognizing that there are many additional variations among these models that are beyond the scope of this document. Marijuana supply availability is one the major drawback of decriminalization option that it can flourish black market. However, allowing individual possession to include a small number of plants for personal use may help in overcoming this disadvantage.
Recommendation
As evidence is not enough to strongly support decriminalization or legalization. A national dialogue is encouraged to help framing a policy that takes into account criminal justice, social, and health impacts. Many factors need to be considered in this dialogue; principles of harm reduction, public health promotion, and the available evidence from research and similar international experiences.
Based on our current available information, decriminalization is considered a good option to reduce the health and social drawbacks associated with criminalization, and address at the same time the public concern about potential increase of marijuana use. Decriminalization also gives the necessary time to conduct further research, learn from other international experiences and from our own experience after the policy change. A good evidence is needed to have an informed decision in the future and determine if it will be the best public interest to proceed with full legislation.



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