National Column: Politicians will bungle pot legalization

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by Rosie DiManno

I happened to spend three days over New Year’s in Las Vegas. Work! On the Star’s dime!

What a pleasure it was to smoke indoors again, a rarity in our world, with all the casinos tobacco-friendly. A city built on vice recognizes that gamblers are smokers and drinkers.

But on New Year’s Eve, when venturing out onto the Strip, I immediately recoiled from the stench of cannabis.

Had forgotten that Nevada is one of eight American states where recreational marijuana is now legal. Clark County, in which Vegas is situated, boats some 80 dispensaries selling recreational (as opposed to medical) pot. Anyone over the age of 21 can buy up to one ounce of cannabis (or one-eighth-ounce of concentrate) at a time.

Technically, the fine print on the legislation – it came into effect in November 2016 – bans smoking dope in public, on federal land or in a vehicle. Don’t know about the federal land or vehicle part, but clearly law enforcement isn’t paying any mind to public consumption. The city reeks. It’s almost impossible to avoid a second-hand pot contact high.

This was annoying to someone such as moi who loathes the smell of cannabis. It makes me retch.
Perhaps non-smokers, similarly averse to tobacco fumes, can sympathize. We, Butt Nation, have effectively been shunted well away – nine metres – from any building used by the public, where once the restriction applied only to medical facilities. Eventually, we’ll probably be forced to fire up our darts in the middle of the street, hopefully – as Nico Nazis would have it – amid heavy traffic, all the better to wipe us off the face of the Earth.

That’s OK, I can live with it. Until I die from it.

Nevada is actually beholden to potheads. State legislators had been scrambling to replace the moneys from hundreds of millions of dollars – Nevada’s share of settlements with tobacco companies, recouped to cover the cost of health-care spending attributed to smoking-related illnesses. But that pot of gold, which has funded dozens of education and social programs, has severely dwindled, even though payments from 53 tobacco manufacturers to 46 states were to run a minimum of 25 years (beginning in 2008), totalling at least $206 billion (U.S.).

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Marijuana tax revenue allotted to Nevada’s schools – the Distributive Schools Account, it’s called, carefully avoiding the dope essence – has grown from $571,385 in fiscal 2016 (when only medical marijuana taxes were collected) to a projected $20 million from medical and recreational tax revenues in fiscal 2018. That’s the educational cut from a 15-per-cent wholesale tax estimated to rake in more than $56 million by ’18, according to government figures. Five million dollars has been set aside to offset the cost of enforcing marijuana regulations.

Naturally, there’s been political bickering, with some counties, such as Clark, arguing they should be entitled to a proportionately larger chunk of the money because it generates a heap o’ marijuana sales compared with sparsely populated regions of the state.

California, which just came on licit weed-stream Jan. 1 – and with the world’s sixth-largest economy – expects the cannabis market to reach $3.7 billion this year and $5.1 billion in 2019.

It is always about the money, how government can most greedily profit from vice as overarching and monopolistic drug trafficker, within the moralizing rubric of stamping out criminal gangs that have owned the black market for the past century.

These are issues Canada will be confronting soon, if the Liberal government comes through on its promise to legalize dope by this summer, a key election vow by Justin Trudeau. July 1, a Canada Day goal for a fug of pot fumes, is no longer the precise deadline.

Relevant legislation – Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, and Bill-C-46, which would tighten rules on impaired driving related to marijuana use – are still tied up in the Conservative-dominated Senate, seven months after the House passed them. Distribution, sales and packaging will not necessarily be consistent among provinces, although it appears that wholesale distribution and online sales will be largely controlled by the feds. Provinces and territories will choose from three retail models for over-the-counter sales: private, public or hybrid.

Ontario has already announced its plan to roll out pot via LCBO subsidiary stores, essentially freezing out the private sector, including scores of dispensaries that have already set up shop. Unless Queen’s Park offers a competitive pricing scale, this scheme will definitely not send gangs and bikers out of business.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, as Trudeau’s drug czar, though at least he’s always been honest about the ineffectiveness of drug laws to control crime. His predecessor, Julian Fantino, was among the most hard-core of anti-drug chiefs, even once comparing legalization of pot to legalizing murder. Yet there was Fantino, in November, cutting the ribbon on a new medical marijuana business he co-owns with former RCMP deputy commissioner Raf Souccar.

Several other Canadian ex-cops, according to a recent Reuters story, are wading into the pot-selling sphere. So members of the same law enforcement gang that busted your ass lo, these many years are now hoping to get rich off drug use.

The world keeps on turning and I can evolve with the times, although I still think it’s a dumb idea. But I’ve heard little of genuine significance about how this all will work in a country where the black market windfall from marijuana was estimated by Statistics Canada as worth up to $7.2 billion in 2015; a country that has a ridiculously high rate of pot consumption by teenagers, who will still be handing over their money to street dealers because they can’t buy legal. I suspect the same guys who stroll into my local bar with a duffel bag full of cheap untaxed smokes-off-the-reservation will be expanding their inventory.

What of the million or so Canadians who have a pot-related criminal record? In 2015 alone, upward of 20,000 individuals found with varying amounts of pot were charged. Trudeau has hinted at an amnesty and pardons but that sunny thereafter has not found its way into any proposed legislation yet.

Politicians cock everything up. Politicians straining under the weight of unprecedented debt, dope dollar signs dancing in their eyes, will doubtless make a mess of this too.

And where will you be able to toke? Because I don’t want the stink anywhere around me and I sure as hell will go bat-sh-t crazy if it’s permitted anywhere I can’t smoke an ordinary cigarette.

Big tobacco bad. Big pot perfectly fine Canadiana.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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