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How Fear Is Stopping Drug Legalization

04/27/2014 08:21 EDT | Updated 06/27/2014 05:59 EDT
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A man smokes a joint during a march for the legalization of marijuana towards the Legislative Palace in Montevideo, on December 10, 2013, as the Senate discuss a law on the legalization of marijuana's cultivation and consumption. Uruguays parliament is to vote Tuesday a project that would make the country the first to legalize marijuana, an experiment that seeks to confront drug trafficking. The initiative launched by 78-year-old Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a former revolutionary leader, would enable the production, distribution and sale of cannabis, self-cultivation and consumer clubs, all under state control. AFP PHOTO/ Pablo PORCIUNCULA (Photo credit should read PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/Getty Images)

Geoff Plant, B.C.'s attorney general from 2001 to 2005 in the Gordon Campbell government, believes it is human nature to be fearful, and he understands the fear of legalizing currently illegal drugs.

"I think there is a fear of change, a fear of change that is ungrounded in any rational apprehension about what will happen," he said. "We accept at some level that the whole prohibition policy is a total failure, yet in some other part of our brain we are afraid of change because we worry that society would just turn itself into a collection of drug-addled morons.

"Maybe it's because for a while I was in the same world myself that I see it that way," he mused.

Plant does think that gang violence -- often on busy streets in daylight -- linked to the drug trade in both Vancouver and cities around the world could make people question the status quo.

"Don't underestimate the power of sitting in a restaurant, a high-end restaurant, in downtown Vancouver and seeing the guy across from you getting blasted in the head," he said, noting that this happens in real life and not just on TV shows.

"What concerns me is that we underestimate the size of the economic activity, and we don't spend enough time thinking about what an unregulated multi-billion dollar industry does when it infiltrates the lawful economy," Plant said.

The costs to taxpayers of such activity is one of the reasons that former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen was convinced that we have to change how we deal with illegal drugs, particularly marijuana.

"Legalize it and tax the hell out of it and eliminate the deficit," said Owen, who led a centre-right coalition, is scion of one of Vancouver's most established families, and whose father was a B.C. lieutenant general.

"$4.2 million dollars in cash was found in the Hell's Angels' clubhouse in Kelowna," he said. "So what do you think there is in all of British Columbia that should be in our government cash registers [and] not with the criminal element tax-free?"

When he was mayor, Owen championed the groundbreaking Four Pillars approach to drug use: prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction, and advocated for North America's first legal supervised injection site located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Plant, as a former cabinet minister, well understands the challenges of trying to stretch public funds.

"There are people sitting on the Treasury Board trying to figure out how to pay for all these public services," he said.

"And to realize there is a multi-billion-dollar industry out there and none of those funds are available to help support the infrastructure for social services or health services is extremely frustrating."