One of the first things medical students are taught is some version of the precept, “first do no harm.” It’s a good maxim for life in general, and, more specifically, for any policy maker looking to make significant changes to the existing order of things.
Take, for example, the legalization of marijuana. Even as Canada rolls steadily toward legalization, with Bill C-45 expected to become law sometime later this summer, one of the most famously permissive jurisdictions in Europe is steadily ratcheting up its controls on the selling and consumption of marijuana. In response to complaints by residents and growing concerns over anti-social behaviour, the Dutch city of The Hague has banned the smoking of cannabis in the city centre, around the train station and in major shopping districts. This comes a few years after a judge authorized a partial clampdown on sales of the drug to tourists and other non-residents.
The central question facing the Liberal government as it seeks to fulfill its 2015 campaign promise to “legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana” is: Can they do it without making the situation worse? As the Liberal platform points out, the current regime has a lot of problems. It doesn’t keep pot away from kids, it puts large profits into the hands of organized crime and it traps a lot of people – disproportionately those from disadvantaged communities – into the criminal-justice system for what is, for the most part, a victimless crime.
From that perspective, legalization would seem to be a no-brainer. But it is always possible for even the most well-intentioned government to make things worse, and as Bill C-45 moves closer to becoming law, a number of warning flares are starting to go off.