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Stop Pretending Marijuana Prohibition Protects Children

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We must protect our kids from the scourge of marijuana.

That's the line you'll hear from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The Tories can't even mention Justin Trudeau and his plan to legalize pot without resorting to a plea to 'think of the children!' They'll tell you pot can fry a developing brain, spoil an academic career or even turn your son or daughter into an addict.

Brooks argued last week that, even though he smoked pot in high school, Colorado is wrong to legalize pot because governments should aim to "subtly encourag[e] the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourag[e] lesser pleasures, like being stoned."

While pot can definitely muck with a teen's development, Harper and Brooks both miss the greater danger the drug poses to young people here and around the world: crime and its consequences.

I grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough and saw plenty of people smoke marijuana during my teenage years. The drug's most destructive effect wasn't missed classes or wasted afternoons, but the way it drew classmates into a criminal world.

Many fellow students, often those who came from difficult family situations or who didn't have much money, were lured into dealing drugs. Inevitably, each would show up at school one day with a face covered in bruises and scabs. Nobody had to ask what happened.

Oddly, nobody at my school starting selling alcohol to other kids. If someone really wanted to drink, they would get a fake ID, enlist an older brother or steal from mom and dad. Sure, there was plenty of underage drinking, but nobody went the way of Al Capone.

For many kids at my high school pot really was a gateway drug -- a gateway to violence and crime. If pot had been treated more like alcohol they never would have become involved with dealing in the first place. Their futures were blighted as a consequence of a prohibition that does little to keep marijuana away from young people.

Despite our relatively strict laws, more Canadians between the ages of 11 and 15 smoke marijuana than anywhere else in the Western world, according to UNICEF. Teens in Holland, with its famously lax drug policy, smoke less.

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Prohibition isn't keeping pot away from teens but it is ruining young lives across the continent. As is so often the case with misguided legislation, it's the disadvantaged who suffer most.

In my neighbourhood it was rarely the upper middle class white kids who ended up dealing drugs -- even though they did plenty of the smoking. In the U.S., African Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offences than whites, despite equal use, according to a 2010 ACLU study. In the process, the U.S. clogs its justice system with 750,000 pot arrests every year. Nearly 40,000 people are in state or federal prison in the U.S. as a result of a marijuana-related convictions.

All this so we can pretend to control a drug that has caused zero overdose deaths. Meanwhile, the insatiable appetite for pot in the U.S. and Canada drives a savage war in Mexico that has killed tens of thousands.

It's delusional for parents to believe that if marijuana is illegal their kids won't smoke pot. But helping middle class white parents sustain this fantasy has to be more important than some dead Mexicans. Right?

At the moment, the federal Tories are doing little to change the status quo. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has quietly hinted the government may follow the advice of Canada's police chiefs and allow officers to issue tickets for minor marijuana offences, but insists it will never support decriminalization or legalization. The party relentlessly targets Trudeau for encouraging young people to do drugs by admitting he smoked a little weed (gasp).

The NDP also bashes Trudeau on the youth angle, while supporting decriminalization "with the goal of removing its production and distribution from the control of organized crime."

The argument makes no sense at all. How would decriminalization (or a fine model) take the production and sale of marijuana out of the hands of criminal organizations? It would simply remove the penalties for minor possession while leaving the grow-ops and the profits in the hands of criminals.

Legalization is the most logical way to end marijuana crime and protect our children in the process.

But because so many of us feel pot use shouldn't be encouraged, we mindlessly maintain a drug war -- at a staggering human cost -- that simply hasn't worked.

It's this type of twisted thinking, exemplified by Brooks' plea for government to foster the "highest pleasures", that keeps us from embracing the simple logic of legalization. We pay lip service to encouraging our kids to stay away from drugs at the expense of young people who get beat up, jailed or killed in the process. In service of a dream, we've created a nightmare.

It's long past time we gave up the fantasy that prohibition protects our children.

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