The time to explore alternatives to the failed approach of marijuana prohibition has come.


A board showing different products for sale at The Dispensary, a medical marijuana dispensary, is shown in Vancouver, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2015.

Once again a familiar story about drugs is unfolding in Canada and it goes like this. A municipality, not surprisingly Vancouver, wants to take a new approach to drug policy. Simply put, the municipality, largely because of a failure on the part of the federal government to effectively administer medicinal cannabis, is responding to an explosive growth in cannabis dispensaries locally by seeking to regulate them. The federal government has immediately responded by expressing its strong disapproval with such novel measures, largely because they will undermine the ruling party’s anti-drug stance and apparently lead to a massive escalation in cannabis use.

Why is this story so familiar? It’s because Canada has continued to take countless steps backwards in its approach to drug policy since Stephen Harper took power. Canada’s National Drug Strategy was changed to the “Anti-drug Strategy,” and all references to harm reduction were removed. Whenever there has been an attempt to move beyond existing failed approaches, the Conservative government has responded with contempt and claims that the sky is falling.

So now the Conservative government is very unhappy that the City of Vancouver is seeking to regulate cannabis dispensaries. Within 24 hours of the City’s announcement, Minister of Health Rona Ambrose issued a statement of extreme disapproval. She noted that legitimizing cannabis sales and use would only have the effect of increasing cannabis use and addiction.

Conservatives said the same things about Insite — that it would somehow legitimize injection drug use and lead to escalated drug use, crime and public disorder. However, a large body of peer-reviewed evidence found these claims to be entirely false. Fortunately science trumped ideology and Insite remains in operation today.

So will the regulation of cannabis dispensaries lead to such terrible outcomes? It remains to be seen, but given what information we have it seems unlikely. Although cannabis coffee shops have been tolerated in the Netherlands for decades, the rate of cannabis use in that country is much lower than in the U.S., which has spent billions enforcing anti-cannabis laws. So far, following the legalization of cannabis in Colorado, no significant increases in cannabis use or associated health problems have been seen.

Interestingly, there could be many positive unintended impacts of allowing dispensaries to exist that extend beyond the expected benefits related to increased access to medical cannabis. A recent U.S. study found rates of fatal overdose due to prescription opioid misuse were lower in states with medicinal cannabis laws than in states without them.

However, there are other important benefits of alternative approaches to cannabis regulation that should not be overlooked. In the first 10 months following the legalization of cannabis regulation in Colorado, more than $40 million was raised in tax revenue, some of which went toward youth-focused drug programs.

The time to explore alternatives to the failed approach to cannabis prohibition has come. Poll after poll shows Canadians are ready for this. Yet here we are once again hearing the same old sad story about drug policy change in Canada. However, just as when the city of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia resisted the Conservative government’s efforts to close Insite, the feds’ opposition to its move to regulate cannabis dispensaries should again be ignored. In fact, they should explore innovative approaches to the regulation of cannabis production, distribution and use in a manner that protects and promotes health, which in turn could generate much needed revenue for our ailing health care system.

Thomas Kerr is director of the Urban Health Research Initiative, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS; and associate professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia. Julio Montaner is professor and head, UBC — Division of AIDS, UBC and St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation chair in AIDS Research, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia; and director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.