By Mark A.R. Kleiman and Jonathan P. Caulkins for The Trudeau government’s proposal to legalize cannabis will no doubt generate heated debate. The question of how to legalize is likely to receive less attention. But it is no less important; the consequences of legalization will depend strongly on details that neither side of the larger debate has given much attention.

The potential benefits of legalization include: increasing personal liberty; gains to consumers in convenience and in product variety and safety (via chemical testing and accurate labelling); and substantially shrinking a multi-billion-dollar illicit market and the associated enforcement efforts and punishments. (Statistics Canada reports more than 20,000 cannabis-related convictions per year; about one-third of those lead to custodial sentences, with a median length of 30 days.)

The primary risk of legalization is increased problematic use (“cannabis use disorder,” in medical terminology) and the resulting damage to consumers, and their families, friends and co-workers. Leakage from the adult market may also increase use among adolescents—especially if prices fall dramatically—creating risks to academic performance and psychological and emotional development.  The growing share of cannabis users who report smoking every day—now about one-quarter of Canadian past-month users—demonstrates the risk of developing problem use.

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