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Cannabis legalization still hazy

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"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

- George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

These words might be worth considering with the announcement that the Liberal Party of Canada is inching it's way to legalizing cannabis as promised in the last election.

This week, we learned that the federal Liberals hope to have legislation in place by July 2018, with the formal announcement about the process to reach Canadians in time for the ubiquitous and upcoming 4/20 celebrations that always seem to pop up across Canada.

What can Canadians expect with the legalization? Fortunately, 28 U.S. states and Washington, DC, have already legalized medical marijuana use, and eight of those have legalized recreational use by adults.

Colorado is one of the states that has legalized recreational use and latest figures show total marijuana sales in 2016 at US$1.3 billion with tax revenue coming in at US$200 million.

While we don't have full details yet it looks like the provinces will have the power to decide how marijuana is distributed and sold and will also have the legal right to set the price.

In recent months, the federal Liberals have said any pot proceeds would be directed to addiction treatment, mental-health support and education programs. A recent study from the parliamentary budget watchdog predicted that about 60 per cent of marijuana taxation would flow to the provinces, which would have a say about how revenues are spent.

The November 2016 study projected sales tax revenue in 2018 could be as low as $356 million and as high as $959 million, with a likely take of about $618 million based on legalized retail cannabis selling for $9 per gram — in line with current street prices.

In Washington, 50 per cent of all cannabis-related revenue is mandated to go back into the health-care system, and in Colorado, the first $40 million of retail tax revenue each year goes towards renovating, upgrading or building new schools in the state.

In Oregon, 35 per cent of cannabis tax revenue goes to law enforcement.

The details are still pretty vague about how it will all work here in B.C. We were told this week that a provincial cross-ministry working group is studying it.

The federal government would be in charge of making sure the supply is safe and it is setting 18 years old as the minimum age to buy marijuana, but provinces can set their own age limit.

In B.C. it would surely make more sense to have the legal age for pot set at the same age as alcohol — 19.

On the issue of cost, it would make little sense for the cannabis to be set a high cost to the consumer as a deterrent since that will just encourage a strong underground cannabis economy (estimated to be a $7 billion-a-year underground business in Canada today). Better to have it priced so that users are not tempted to buy it illegally — and that would secure tax revenue for government as well.

Municipalities are still going to want to control access through their own bylaws.

What we don't want to see are teenagers using a substance that is far more powerful today than it was 20 years ago. There is plenty of science on the harm pot can do the developing brain.

That's not to say that some teens aren't being adversely affected by alcohol — they are — as are plenty of adults. What the legalization of pot means is that governments at all levels and the community have to work together to make sure that users are educated about the risks.

Drunk driving, though still a terrible scourge to society, is deeply frowned on by most thanks to powerful marketing campaigns by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. We need to make sure the same message is shared around using cannabis and driving.

Here in Whistler, it is not uncommon to see skiers, boarders and sledders inhaling as they recreate. That's something education has to address. Heading out for a day in the backcountry on your sled and smoking dope is just plain stupid — as is consuming alcohol.

Of course this is not the first time North America has taken a substance that was outlawed and made it legal. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 and after alcohol became mainstream again the sky did not fall.

But we would be naïve to think that legalizing cannabis recreationally is not going to have a significant impact on our roads, on our health-care system and on our society.

But just as society adjusted to alcohol after prohibition it looks like we are going to have to come up with some creative ideas about how to integrate cannabis into everyday life safely.

All I can say is education, education, education.

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