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U.S. experts urge Canada to cultivate social standards around marijuana

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As the Trudeau government prepares to draw up legislation that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, leading policy experts in the United States have some pointed advice for Canada: Rules are important, but cultivating unwritten social standards around how people use the drug are just as crucial.

In states such as Colorado and Washington, where prohibition of cannabis has been lifted, lawmakers have seen recreational marijuana use soar. While that has pumped welcome tax dollars into government coffers, it has also led to problems with public consumption, overuse and intoxicated driving.

“Do it cautiously,” Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at New York University, said at an international conference on cannabis policy on Sunday. “A bunch of the mistakes that are happening in the U.S. don’t have to happen in Canada.”

In several states and countries, the debate over marijuana legalization is no longer over whether to do it, but how to do it properly, Mr. Kleiman said. His comments came on the first day of the conference, where policy leaders from around the world gathered to discuss how to properly roll out legalization.

The two-day cannabis summit is scheduled to discuss Canada’s plans for legalization in depth on Monday, an indication that the Liberal government’s intentions are being watched closely by policy makers around the world.

“You want people who want [marijuana] to be able to get it, but you don’t want anybody to be pushing it at them,” Mr. Kleiman said after addressing an audience that included academics, doctors and representatives from top research firms such as Rand Corp., which has been tapped in the U.S. to study the impact of legalization on the economy and society.

Mr. Kleiman and Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, are leading a push for governments to think of marijuana less as a commodity and more as sugary foods or gambling – “temptation goods” that must be treated carefully so that overuse doesn’t end up burdening society.

To do this, legislators must think about more than just laws, but about fostering social habits that can promote responsible use, Mr. Caulkins said. Alcohol consumption has been shaped this way – with varying degrees of success – over the past several decades, using a mixture of legislation and social influence.

“Some people, as a social norm, don’t drink alcohol before lunch. That’s not a law, it’s not a regulation, it’s just a social norm,” he said.

“So if we are honest about the potential to lose control of cannabis use, then we might as a society – outside of the political process – want to try to create social norms to control use.”

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