Is it time to consider taxing and regulating marijuana?

It would be hard to find anyone who'd argue the War on Drugs has not been lost.

Billions of dollars spent, thousands of law-enforcement officers utilized, millions of people in prison. But illegal drugs continue to be easily accessible in the United States and Canada while young men gang up and kill each other in that other war, for drug profits.

Notwithstanding last fall's votes effectively legalizing marijuana sale and possession for personal use in Washington and Colorado, I'm not seeing much momentum to do away with existing laws elsewhere.

If it happens anywhere in Canada, it'll probably be in British Columbia, where a parade of present and former politicians have come out in favour of ending Canada's pot prohibition. A group called Stop the Violence B.C., whose members include a who's who of prominent British Columbians, is advocating for change.

Nationally, the Liberal party voted in favour of legalizing and regulating pot at its annual convention a year ago while the federal New Democrats historically have favoured decriminalization.

The latest appeal came in the form of an op-ed article Friday in the Globe and Mail by former B.C. attorneys-general Geoff Plant, Colin Gabelmann, Graeme Bowbrick and Ujjal Dosanjh, who was briefly premier of the province in 2000-01.

The quartet of B.C.'s former top law-enforcement officers reiterated their argument that it's time to ditch the punitive approach in favour of taxing and regulating adult pot use.

"The proof that cannabis prohibition has failed is irrefutable," they write. "We see the evidence on our streets, in our communities and on the nightly news – gang-related homicides and shootings, innocent victims caught in the crossfire, grow-op busts and violent grow-op thefts."

Prohibition enriches violent criminal gangs, who have the market to themselves, but stretches law-enforcement resources at a time when politicians are wrestling with budget cuts and logjams in the courts.

[Related: Public Safety Minister tells Canada's cops to innovate or face cutbacks]

The former A-Gs criticized the federal Conservative government's toughening of Criminal Code sections with mandatory minimum jail terms for growing as few as six marijuana plants.

"There will be massive provincial budget and expenditure implications from this bill and yet, our streets will be no safer," they say. "It is time for a complete rethink."

While not playing down the potential harm associated with pot use, they argue the benefits of ending prohibition outweigh the drawbacks, especially in B.C., where the industry is worth billions of dollars.

"The loss of the massive illegal marijuana market in British Columbia would hobble gangsters involved in the marijuana trade while at the same time raising significant tax revenue," they contend.

"According to health experts such as the British Columbia Health Officers’ Council, a strictly regulated legal market that restricts sales to minors would also better protect young people from predatory drug dealers."

They cite a study published last fall in the International Journal of Drug Policy that concludes a legally regulated pot market (illegal sales in B.C. are estimated at more than $400 million annually) could divert hundreds of millions of dollars out of criminal hands, some of it into government coffers.

A recent B.C. poll also suggested three quarters of British Columbians support taxation and regulation of marijuana, they add.

"Now it is time to put ideology and politics aside in favour of a level-headed, evidence-based discussion about the failure of marijuana prohibition and the policy alternatives available to us," they say, urging provincial and civic leaders to "join, if not lead, the debate and demand change."

Well, good luck with that, at least while Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the big chair.

The arguments in favour of decriminalizing pot are certainly compelling, but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said repeatedly the government has no intention of rolling back its hard line.

Provinces who want to change their policies could presumably instruct their police forces not to lay charges for possession of small amounts of pot. How successful that might be in B.C., where the federally regulated RCMP police much of the province under contract, remains to be seen.

What seems more likely, to me, is that everyone will watch closely what happens south of the border.

One of the big arguments used to rule out decriminalization has been how the Americans would react. But if legalization is implemented smoothly in Washington and Colorado, if the streets aren't suddenly crowded with addled Dorito-munching potheads, then it could help undermine those who think legalized pot will signal the end of civilization.

(Photo courtesy of CBC)