Marijuana debate relit by study saying legalization would bring billions in revenue



VANCOUVER -- A decades-old debate over the legalization of marijuana has been re-ignited by a new study by researchers at the University of BC and Simon Fraser University.

British Columbia's domestic cannabis market could be worth more than $500 million annually, resulting in $2.5 billion in tax and licensing revenues over the next five years, according to the study.

But while legalization might increase tax revenue, many believe it wouldn't curb organized crime.

"If people are thinking that we'll shrink organized crime, they're dreaming," said Darryl Plecas, a criminology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley. "At least 70% of our marijuana is exported. So long as it is not decriminalized or legalized everywhere, there will always be a black market."

Irwin Cohen, research director of the BC Centre for Social Responsibility, agreed.

"If you take out ideology and morality, it's tricky to make the argument that (marijuana) is very harmful - but equally dangerous to assume the black market would disappear," Cohen told QMI Agency.

An estimated 85% of B.C.'s cannabis market is controlled by organized crime groups, according to provincial policing agencies, who attribute some 276 drive-by shootings in 2009 to that activity.

Another expert says a successful taxation and regulation market in BC would need to take public health into consideration.

"Tobacco is probably our best model for regulating a mind-active, intoxicating drug," said SFU criminology professor Neil Boyd. "The difference between alcohol and tobacco has been in limiting the marketing and promotion of tobacco resulting in usage rates dropping from 60% of Canadians 50 years ago to 19% today."

Although the province could push for non-enforcement of existing cannabis laws, any changes must take place at the federal level.

In the meantime, the province can regulate who to arrest and prosecute, said B.C.'s former premier Ujjal Dosanjh.

"The RCMP is ultimately a provincial police force," he said. "If the RCMP won't follow guidelines then perhaps it is time to look at implementing our own provincial police force."

An Angus Reid public opinion poll found that 75% of British Columbians are in favour of regulating and taxing marijuana in a similar manner to the recent ballots in Washington and Colorado. Meanwhile, according to the province's justice ministry, possession charges across B.C. increased by 88% in the past decade.

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