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Regulated marijuana would reap hundreds of millions for B.C., study says

A demonstrator smokes a marijuana cigarette during in Vancouver.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue if it regulated and taxed marijuana, according to a new study.

The study, published this month in the International Journal of Drug Policy, estimates British Columbians spend between $443-million and $564-million on marijuana each year.

"Given the value of this market and the failure and harms of law enforcement efforts to control the cannabis market, policy makers should consider regulatory alternatives," the study says.

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The report comes the same month as two U.S. states – Washington and Colorado – voted to decriminalize and regulate the drug. They hope to have licensed stores operating by late next year, provided the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't intervene.

Ottawa would have to sign off on any plans to decriminalize and regulate in B.C. After the U.S. votes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he does not plan to reopen the issue. A spokeswoman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson reiterated Tuesday the government "does not support the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has given no indication she plans to press Ottawa on the matter. When asked earlier this month whether she supported a B.C. marijuana referendum, Ms. Clark said drug policy is up to the federal government.

When asked about generating billions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue, Ms. Clark said, "Lots of those numbers are speculative anyway."

Ms. Clark, in Fort St. John for a jobs announcement, could not be reached for an interview Tuesday.

The study, led by Dan Werb of the Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, notes B.C. is home to a bustling marijuana industry, one controlled by organized crime.

The B.C. marijuana market – largely unseen, largely export – has been valued at billions of dollars a year. The study cites two works that have examined that value, with the first coming in between $2-billion and $7-billion, and the second at $3.6-billion.

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Werner Antweiler, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, told The Globe and Mail earlier this month that between $6-billion and $8-billion is "realistic." Prof. Antweiler also said B.C.'s marijuana industry could take a "significant" hit due to the U.S. legalization votes.

Mr. Werb, interviewed by phone while he's in Mexico for a drug policy meeting, said the Washington and Colorado votes could impact the B.C. market, but there will be plenty of places for that marijuana to go.

For the study on how much British Columbians spend on marijuana each year, Mr. Werb and his five co-authors looked at four areas: estimated number of cannabis users in B.C.; frequency of use; quantity used; and retail cost. He relied on data released by, among others, the Canadian Alcohol and Other Drug Use Monitoring Survey and the British Columbia Alcohol and Other Drug Monitoring Project.

When asked if there was any reason for uncertainty about his findings, Mr. Werb said only when it comes to retail cost.

"The one source of uncertainty might be how much people are paying for their marijuana across B.C. That's the one piece of data that we have the least information on," he said. "… We elected to create as conservative a measure as possible. That's why we used the $7.50 a gram. Some sources were saying the average was $15 a gram."

Ujjal Dosanjh, a former B.C. premier and a proponent of regulating marijuana, said the study's findings weren't a shock.

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"If you look at the studies done in Washington State and other areas, the public opinion as well as the estimates of revenue are very similar," said Mr. Dosanjh, who is also a former Liberal MP.

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