Dopey idea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 July, 2004, 12:00am

It is reputed to be British Columbia's second-biggest industry, bigger than tourism. It is an almost infinite resource, grows everywhere (even indoors) and you can market it with profits of 55 per cent. Queen Victoria used it, fed it to her songbirds, and Canadians today enjoy both its health and entertainment value. There is even a political party named after it.

There is only one problem: marijuana has been illegal in Canada since the 1920s. That is when the first woman judge in the British Empire, Emily Murphy, of Edmonton, published a number of polemics against the weed. She said that smoking cannabis turned people into 'raving maniacs' and blamed 'the lowest classes of yellow and black men' for its distribution. They should be lashed and deported, she said, before they infected the entire Anglo-Saxon race. The authorities could hardly ignore that kind of provocation, so marijuana was outlawed, along with opium and other stupefying substances.

But, as with alcohol and nicotine, prohibition only made it sweeter. Marijuana became a boom industry; one quarter of all Canadians have tried it, and today the sale of 'BC Bud' generates an estimated C$7 billion (HK$41 billion). And that is only in one of 10 provinces.

With that kind of money in play, free-market capitalism is never far behind. Sure enough, a right-wing Canadian think-tank, financed by private corporations, has proposed that marijuana be legalised. The Fraser Institute argues that legalising marijuana would generate C$2 billion a year in tax money, and deprive criminals of an easy source of earnings. A report by the Canadian Senate said much the same two years ago, even though a number of senators may still share Murphy's views.

It is generally agreed that tobacco, alcohol and even gambling are more addictive than marijuana, but all three are fantastic cash generators for governments. Why leave cannabis to the crooks? Besides, the BC Marijuana Party argues that if you remove it from the statute books, it would save Canadians C$500 million a year in criminal justice costs. The police disagree. Marijuana, they say, is illegal for good medical reasons. 'It does too much damage to our community,' warns a Vancouver police sergeant.

But there is a more practical argument against a wide-scale commercialisation. And it goes like this: cannabis is so profitable that the government would not settle for taxes, it would want a big piece of the action. And the moment that happens, market efficiency will suffer. The bureaucrats will over-regulate it, mismanage it, overtax it and, in time, drive it back underground. Governments are simply not very good at the vice business.