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A man smokes marijuana during the annual 4/20 rally on Parliament Hill on April 20, 2018. Later this month, recreational use of marijuana will become legal in Canada. The toll of human misery will accordingly increase, but not to worry, some very wealthy firms will make a lot of money and the government will get its share of the booty, just as it does with tobacco, gambling and alcohol.

It has never been clear exactly what problem the legalization of marijuana is the solution to.

Over a year ago I asked questions about what social good legalized pot is supposed to achieve. The government did not have answers then and, on the threshold of legalization, is not greatly bothered to find any.

I have always suspected that the guilty conscience of the affluent is a major factor. Their adult children have the luxury of whiling away a few years snowboarding and smoking pot, but are not in legal jeopardy because rich kids do not get pot convictions. The prime minister himself alluded to that when he acknowledged that his late brother Michel was charged with possession but their father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, made it go away. Recreational marijuana becomes legal in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018. No one predicts an increase in industriousness or health or greater social harmony from legal pot. To the contrary, employers are putting in place restrictions on pot use. Mental-health experts, already lamenting the lack of resources for the treatment, know that marijuana smoking will only make those problems worse at least for the young, but not only them.

So it is in the end a libertarian argument. If you want to smoke pot, you should be able to. Fair enough; not every private vice should be prohibited by public law. The same argument applies of course to heroin and cocaine and opioids, but very few people are quite so bold to apply the argument consistently.

For those who seek a distinction between marijuana and “hard” drugs like opiates and meth, and “soft” drugs like pot, the usual recourse is to liken pot to alcohol. We not only have legal alcohol, but use public dollars to promote its consumption, so why should marijuana be any different? Getting high on a joint is just like getting drunk, so treat it the same. A woman smokes marijuana during the annual 420 rally on Parliament Hill on April 20, 2016, in Ottawa. It’s not, physiologically, but leave that aside and take the argument in the other direction. If you had a society in which alcohol consumption was non-existent, or at least rare, would it be a good idea to try to increase it?

You don’t have to be a priest or police officer or counsellor to know the terrible toll alcohol takes. There are many cultural and practical reasons why the prohibition of alcohol is both unwise and impractical, but that it is legal should not obscure that it does massive damage, often to the most vulnerable. The same goes, by the way, for the casinos and video lottery terminals that the government pushes, to use the apt word, upon vulnerable populations.

The marijuana-is-like-alcohol argument is illuminating. It means that, even if you favour legalization, you fully expect the cataract of social ills that follow. We decide to tolerate the human debris caused by alcohol abuse because of the place it has in our culture. Marijuana abuse, or even regular “use,” has similar foreseeable consequences. We should not pretend that they don’t exist, either for marijuana or alcohol.

Alcohol and culture has particular resonance in Canadian history in light of our Aboriginal peoples. The introduction […]

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