Justin Trudeau and the politics of pot

John Geddes explains why the Liberals are experimenting with marijuana policy

Poll up a joint

Adam Scotti

As recently as eight years ago, Samuel Lavoie says, when members of the Young Liberals of Canada dared talk about legalizing marijuana, they would draw warnings about how taking on this “fringe issue” would only earn them a reputation as “a bunch of potheads.” They pursued the policy idea anyway. With Lavoie, a Montreal law student, as their president, the Liberal youth wing finally pressured its parent party into passing a pro-legalization motion at a national policy convention early last year. Still, the party’s leadership wasn’t under any obligation to put that expression of the rank and file’s view into the next Liberal election platform. But then, last month, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau signalled he would do just that, speaking out in favour of legalization during a summer swing through British Columbia. To Lavoie, it was sweet vindication. “Public opinion has reached a tipping point,” he says. “As Young Liberals, we were clearly ahead of it, but now we’re in sync.”

Related post: Why it’s time to legalize marijuana

Indeed, polls suggest that North Americans are increasingly open to watershed reforms of the law on marijuana. Last year, 57 per cent of Canadians told the Angus Reid survey firm they support legalization, while 68 per cent deemed the war on drugs a “failure.” Equally important for Canadian policy is the trend in U.S. polling data, because a big change in Canada’s pot law might have bilateral implications. Back in 2005, around the time Lavoie remembers Young Liberals taking flak for any pro-legalization musing, Gallup reported that two-thirds of Americans opposed making marijuana legal. These days, about half support it. Echoing that general opinion shift, Canada’s top cops have adopted a new, softer stance on pot. At the annual general meeting of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police last week, they drew the line at legalization, but passed a resolution asking the federal government to let police issue tickets to those caught with small amounts of marijuana, rather than laying criminal charges.

Against that backdrop, Trudeau’s new policy looked less than radical. Far from touting legalization as a path to pot becoming easier to get, he proposed regulations that would, for instance, require proof-of-age ID from anyone seeking to buy. “In many cases,” he said in Vancouver, “it’s more difficult for young people to get their hands on cigarettes than it is to get their hands on weed.” But if Trudeau set out in late July to frame legalization as a prudent policy, he changed the terms of debate in late August with a personal admission. Trudeau told the Huffington Post that he “took a puff” on a joint being passed around at a dinner party at his Montreal home, after he was elected an MP in 2008. “By flouting the laws of Canada while holding elected office, he shows he is a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones,” said Justice Minister Peter MacKay. “Justin Trudeau is simply not the kind of leader our country needs.”

Even before his after-dinner revelation, Trudeau’s legalization proposal was being exploited by Tories in a fundraising email to party members, which slammed him, not so much over the policy itself, but rather for being distracted from the dollars-and-cents issues that matter most to voters. “While the Harper government is focused on the economy,” wrote Conservative party executive director Dan Hilton, “Justin Trudeau has announced one of his very first policy positions as leader of the Liberal party: He wants to legalize marijuana in Canada.”

The Conservatives left little doubt that, despite any broader shift in public opinion, they remain confident that talking tough on pot remains a reliable way to rally their core supporters. Tim Powers, a veteran Conservative strategist and vice-chairman of the Ottawa consulting firm Summa Strategies, says he suspects Trudeau has a similar motivation. The Liberal leader is trying to unite and excite his party’s committed operatives and expand its pool of willing, on-the-ground volunteers. “This appeals to the young, more dynamic part of the base,” Powers says. But he contends that, even if Trudeau succeeds in grabbing the attention of activists, he will pay a price by confirming the doubts about his seriousness already planted in the minds of many other voters. “The risk is that he gets nailed as not being ready for prime time,” Powers says. “It plays into the flaky, flighty, inexperienced leader narrative that the Conservatives and others have put out there.”

Painting Liberals as soft on marijuana is nothing new for Tories. Back in 2010, when then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was in favour of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug—a far more incremental reform than Trudeau’s call for full legalization—Conservatives accused him of “pandering to the drug users” rather than “getting tough on traffickers and producers.” In only a few short years, though, perspectives on marijuana might have shifted enough to render that line of attack less potent. Major developments are unfolding south of the border. Many states are allowing marijuana for medical use, or looking at decriminalizing possession, and residents of two states—Colorado and Washington—voted in referendums last fall to legalize pot for recreational use. Those two states are now moving forward with laws and regulations to implement the will of their voters. In his comments in B.C., Trudeau alluded to following the lead of Colorado and Washington, and a senior Liberal official confirmed that the third-place federal party’s intention is to watch them closely and “try to replicate their successes and avoid their mistakes.”

The new laws in Washington and Colorado differ on key points when it comes to regulating marijuana. For instance, Washington plans to allow outdoor growing, but Colorado will ban open-air cultivation. The two states also propose different rules for businesses that sell pot, although both propose to put limits on advertising, require health warnings on labels and impose taxes on sales, while forbidding selling to anyone under 21. Trudeau’s Liberals haven’t yet come close to sketching such a full regulatory approach, but party sources said a more complete policy will be outlined before the expected 2015 federal election.

Not getting too far ahead of American opinion and policy, at least in some key states, might help avoid any friction with the U.S. authorities. Steven Duke, a Yale University law professor who has written in favour of liberalizing American marijuana laws, doubts there’s much danger of a serious backlash from Washington. “The relationship of Canada and the U.S. is far too intimate, too interactive, too fundamental to let an issue like marijuana legalization create serious friction between them,” Duke said in an email. “Besides, a majority of Americans, or nearly that, favour legalization. They would be outraged if the U.S. were to punish Canada for taking such a sensible approach to the problem.”

Before Trudeau gets a chance to experiment with marijuana policy at the federal level, fresh developments at the provincial level might well have pushed the discussion into new territory. In B.C., a non-profit group is now organizing to gather, between September and November, the more than 400,000 signatures they would need under the province’s rules to prompt a referendum next year on decriminalizing marijuana possession. So it was no accident that Trudeau chose B.C. for a midsummer test drive of his pro-legalization message.

The unequivocal reaction of the Conservatives was predictable. The NDP response, though, sounded less straightforward. The party’s deputy leader, Halifax MP Megan Leslie, called it a “complicated issue” and criticized Trudeau for failing to fully consider the impact legalization might have on Canada’s relationship with the U.S., particularly on managing the border. The NDP has often appeared uneasy in recent years about how far to go in advocating reform of marijuana laws. The late Jack Layton, leading the party in the 2011 campaign, called for an “adult conversation” on the issue. Last year, Thomas Mulcair, Layton’s successor, seemed to assert that decriminalization would be a mistake, since “the marijuana that’s on the market is extremely potent and can actually cause mental illness.” A party spokesman later explained that Mulcair was really only against legalization, and didn’t think anyone should face criminal charges for possessing small amounts.

Powers contends that Trudeau’s legalization gamble is mainly a bid to get out ahead of Mulcair, rather than a move aimed primarily at Harper. “This is about playing to the so-called progressive vote,” he says. “It maybe opens the minds of some potential New Democrats and other switchers to come to the Liberals.” Lavoie largely agrees. “It has cross-party appeal,” he says. “I’m not sure if it’s going to be the wedge, but it does show the Liberal party as bolder. Obviously, it’s something that catches people’s attention.” Lavoie adds that some “libertarian Conservatives” might be tempted, even if they’re staying quiet on the issue so far, to vote Liberal in support of legalization.

On the other hand, Trudeau will now have to work to keep marijuana from becoming too predominant an element in how voters see him. He stressed that his dinner-party toke wasn’t typical behaviour. “I think, five or six times in my life that I’ve taken a puff,” he said. “It’s not my thing.” Lavoie said even Young Liberals who championed legalization want Trudeau to campaign mainly on economic opportunity. “I think Justin’s been very clear about that,” he said, “very focused on how we can have a thriving middle class and ease the burden on the middle class.”

But drug policy has undeniable potential to spark controversy and attract attention. It resonates strongly with centrepiece Conservative law-and-order themes, but also with Trudeau’s push to emulate President Barack Obama by boosting youth voter turnout. As well, predicting the course of public sentiment on sensitive subjects that relate to traditional moral codes has proven to be extremely difficult. In interviews on the marijuana question, both Liberals and Conservatives cited the swing toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, first in Canada and, not far behind, in the U.S., as a lesson in how fast-evolving popular perspectives can throw political strategists off stride. Trudeau is betting that, on marijuana, like marriage, voters won’t recoil from what once seemed like outlandish ideas. Harper will counter by making the case that just raising the legalization option shows Trudeau has his priorities all wrong. Canadian voters, it seems, can look forward in the next election to being offered a clearer choice on the issue than ever before.

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