Columnist Paul Latimer

Latimer: What to do with funds from legal cannabis?

Columnist Paul Latimer says there are many questions with cannabis legalization

For a couple of years now, the prospect of legalized cannabis has been widely discussed from many angles.

Our federal government has now introduced legislation this and hopes marijuana will be legal by Canada Day next year. In the flurry of coverage, we have heard a lot about how the legalization process will work. There has been extensive talk of potential regulations, safeguards, age limits, and taxation schemes.

A student advocacy group in Alberta has recently proposed that province use 100 per cent of tax revenue from legal cannabis for boosting mental health and addiction services.

The group Student Advocates for Public Health at the University of Alberta say the provincial government is likely to bring in more than $50 million in revenue in the first year of legalized marijuana and possibly as much as $100 million in the second year. The group says these funds would go a long way toward addressing concerning gaps in mental health and addiction services in the province.

In 2015, Alberta spent only six percent of its health care budget on mental health when roughly 20 percent of adults experience mental health issues.

These are Alberta statistics, but BC mental health funding has been at similar low levels in recent years. In 2011, the Interior Health Authority spent six per cent of its budget on mental health and addiction services.

Governments need to place a higher priority on addressing service and accessibility shortfalls when it comes to mental health care. This should be happening in conjunction with a mental health strategy and taking place during the regular budgeting process.

That being said, I believe the student group in Alberta is on to something. Revenue from legalized cannabis should not be seen as a windfall to simply roll into the general coffer. We have a real opportunity to funnel these funds into specific, needed projects. Mental health and addiction services are an excellent choice.

This kind of targeted use is not unheard of. Public health, education and addictions have benefited from this kind of plan in several US jurisdictions where cannabis is already legal.

In Washington, 50 percent of cannabis-related revenue goes back to the health care system. Similarly, in Colorado, the first $40 million of tax revenue each year goes toward upgrading or building new schools.

Marijuana will be legal in Canada within the next couple of years. With that, will come new revenues for provincial and federal governments to use. Let’s take this opportunity to develop a thoughtful plan for the best ways to use these funds to improve the health and wellness of our population.

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