Cannabis legalization

Cannabis legalization has been on the horizon since the election of the Liberal government in 2015. Unfortunately Saskatchewan is lagging behind other provinces when it comes to developing a road map for how to manage this change. There are lessons to be learned from south of the border and we need to take full advantage of the economic potential legalization has to offer.

For starters, readers need to pay attention to the 4o recommendations advanced by policy researchers in their report for the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy earlier this year. You can find a summary and download a copy here. I won't go over the details, but it's important to recognize that despite the challenges of managing legalization, there is tremendous social and economic potential. At the same time, the authors conclude that "restricting youth access, mitigating criminal activity, protecting public health and safety, and ensuring a safe supply chain will all be critical for the success of the legalized cannabis sector." And, if distribution is managed effectively, the cannabis industry offers new sources of revenue both for the province and municipalities. It also opens the door to a broader conversation in our province about expanding the taxation powers of municipalities by allowing cities to introduce a special marijuana tax.

Unfortunately all levels of government in Saskatchewan have kept this issue on the side of their desks, waiting for other levels of government to roll out their own plans instead of advocating for policies that are progressive and that address a variety of economic, educational, and health-related concerns. That's unfortunate but very Saskatchewan. So I decided to find out for myself how Colorado has dealt with legalization, with a specific focus on the City of Denver. For starters, here's an exchange I had with that City's Office of Marijuana Policy, an office that was set up by Denver's Mayor - who initially opposed legalization - in order to ensure a well-managed system. 

1. What impact has legalization had on policing and policing costs? Specifically, is there evidence to support the claim that cannabis-induced impaired driving rates will increase with legalization? Was specialized training or equipment required to police this? Has there been any effect on crime, crime rates, incarceration, etc.?

"The costs of properly regulating legal, commercial cannabis and enforcing the laws around it are immense, which is why the city prioritized adding a special sales tax on retail marijuana to help fund those efforts. We have added police officers and crime lab staff, but most of their activity has been dedicated to policing the licensed industry, much the same as we do for liquor and other industries, as well as to addressing the illegal production and sale of Denver-grown cannabis in the unlicensed world that finds its way to black markets out of state.
DUIs specifically for marijuana are less than 100 per year in Denver since 2013, compared with more than 2,000 annual DUIs overall, but we do worry about the effects of driving high. We have dedicated resources in the police department to train more Drug Recognition Experts, and the state has broad information campaigns aimed at decreasing stoned driving. More info on crime data and DUI stats are in our annual report."
Like Regina, property crime is the biggest issue for police in Denver - marijuana industry-related crime represented 0.32% of overall crime. Consider that cannabis accounts for a third of drug related offences in our city. Imagine what might happen if police were tasked with other, more important tasks! Across the state, there were hundreds of citations related to unlawful public consumption and display charges, which signifies that the nature of most offences are negligible and hardly represent a public safety concern. In some respects the police moved towards becoming an industry regulator rather than continuing their ill-fated "war on drugs".
2. Have cities directly benefited from legalization? I'm thinking specifically of economic development, tourism, and tax revenue. How has the City spent this new revenue?
"Legalization has unquestionably created both public and private sector jobs in Denver, but again, the costs of regulation are high. Marijuana-related revenue is about 3 percent of the city’s total revenue. That’s not insignificant, but it’s not the kind of money that will change a city’s fiscal dynamics, nor will it suddenly pay to fix a city’s roads and bridges, or build a bunch of new schools. We prioritize regulation, enforcement, education and public health. You can see how that’s broken out in our 2018 budget, attached (revenue is projected). Again here, our annual report does a nice job of showing revenue and expenditures from 2014-2017, and where we’ve focused our efforts."
In 2018, the City is expected to raise $15.1 million from a 3.5% special retail marijuana tax and another $6 million from a state share back. Here's how the revenue is spent:
- Regulation: $2.3 million
- Enforcement: $2.8 million (notice how the regulation and enforcement actually pays for itself)
- Education: $3.6 million
- Public health (includes opioid intervention): $2.3 million
- Improvement to City and facilities: $10 million
3. Was your city require to revise zoning bylaws and requirements related to the growing and distribution of cannabis?
"Yes, we have remained nimble and flexible and tried to evolve regulations as the industry evolves and we all become more knowledgeable about its uses, processes and impacts. Our setbacks for stores are actually in the licensing code, and cultivation and manufacturing facilities must be located in industrial zone districts."
It's worth noting that the City also introduced a smell mitigation standard in an effort of appeasing neighbours who don't like the smell of cannabis production or consumption.
4. Generally, how supportive are residents of legalization and the subsequent regulations?
"Two-thirds of Denver voters approved the statewide amendment to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, and while we don’t have any official polling on the subject, I’d imagine that margin would hold if we were to vote again today. We have focused our efforts on protecting Denver’s quality of life, and by and large we have been successful in doing so. We have taken an active and coordinated approach to managing this, and funded it accordingly. I believe that is why it has worked thus far."
Where next?
We can only hope that the provincial government manages this file well, but I'm not going to hold my breath. Whatever happens, the City of Regina needs to make the best of the scenario and task partners like Economic Development Regina, the Regina Police Service, as well as Bylaw Enforcement, to craft a system that generates economic activity, reduces policing costs, and leverages our City's place as an agricultural hub. Finally an oil-based economy I enthusiastically support.