How not to protect community health and safety” is the title of a report from the Stop The Violence BC ( STVBC ) coalition. It tells of how cannabis policy with its focus on prohibition and extensive efforts on enforcement have both failed. Quite spectacularly, too. Cannabis is more available, cheaper and more potent than ever even after billions of tax dollars have been spent on prohibition. Worse, organized crime is rolling in cash because of the same policies.
It is time to think more clearly about cannabis policy. This is why the Health Officers’ Council of BC ( HOC ) has stepped up with its support for STVBC. The HOC is not saying that cannabis should be legalized and taxed because is it safe. Rather, they are saying that proven public health approaches should be used to constrain its use.
The STVBC report makes several clear policy recommendations.
There need to be restrictions on the purchase and use of cannabis. These could include age restrictions on sales and could impose restrictions on driving and operating machinery while intoxicated, limits on the hours of sale and outlet density, restricted bulk sales and limits on the potency of legal cannabis. All of these ideas support the public health model to reduce the unintended health and social harms such as drug-related violence and homicide that accompany prohibition.
Government should control the production and distribution of cannabis. Existing conditional licensing of medical cannabis could be expanded and applied on a larger scale to the regulation and taxation of cannabis. The system would include strict prohibitions on marketing and branding, standard labelling on content and health realistic health warnings like those for tobacco currently.
Taxation is another tool in the arsenal of a new cannabis policy. Taxing a product increases its price to the consumer and has been shown to affect consumption levels of alcohol and tobacco. The price of cannabis could also be kept as high as possible to limit use, but low enough to avoid creating an incentive to produce cannabis for an illegal market.
Other regulatory tools to consider include policies that restrict the location and circumstances of consumption, not unlike current policies on alcohol and tobacco. The “Dutch coffee shop” model for cannabis should be considered as well.
Prohibition has never worked. We need only look at current cannabis policy to see that. Not enough, look back at the efforts of the 1920s and 30s, and look at the results. There is a better way. We must consider it.
Editor’s note: Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.