We tend to be highly critical of our politicians, whether they actually gamble on landing on either side of a controversial issue, or just pass the buck with a typical act of rhetorical sleight of hand. While the second option opens up a politician to all kinds of accusations about tip-toeing and saying nothing in order to remain electable, the politician that actually picks a side does so knowing that he might honk off as much as 50 per cent of the electorate. And if you're the leader of a major political party, the act of speaking your mind is even more daring.
So kudos to Justin Trudeau for coming out this past week in favour of the legalization of marijuana. The gamble's either going to be a big win for the young Trudeau, or he's just handed the Conservative spin machine enough ammo to sink him, and possibly the party.
"Decriminalization is a great first step [but] I'm in favour of legalization as well, because we control it, tax and regulate it, we allow for development of a medical marijuana industry," Trudeau said. "I certainly wouldn't want to encourage people to use it... but in terms of respecting Canadians and their choices... and following where the science leads us is a responsible way of government."
The good news is that for anyone that might want to bank on the Liberals, but hedge on the idea of legalizing pot, Trudeau has about a year and a half to convince people that his thinking is sound. Also good news for Trudeau is that the aforementioned spin machine has had little negative effect on his brief tenure as Liberal leader so far. But being pro-legal pot changes the game. It's a stand not even the NDP have taken yet, which is why NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie told the CBC Trudeau's stand was "political pandering."
But the NDP will be the least of Trudeau's concern, and indeed potential NDP-backers may like Trudeau's stand on the issue more than Official Opposition's. The stick in the ointment will be the Conservative reaction. Presently, there are a lot of micro-scandals that are keeping the government on its toes, but in full-attack mode, the Conservatives now have a juicy weapon that falls right into their law and order agenda.
"I find it quite strange frankly that Mr. Trudeau would be talking about legalization as a priority at this time," said Justice Minister Peter MacKay said on Friday. "Our government has no intention of legalization. I would think Mr. Trudeau should look at other areas in which we can end violence and drug use and end this societal ill."
Wise words, but ones that fly in the face present law enforcement experience which says that the hammering down on drugs and drug use in Draconian ways does nothing to eliminate the problem so much as its only successful in creating new prison inmates by the droves. The statistics tell us that there are 1.7 million cannabis users in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 70,000 possession charges were filed in 2002, with two-thirds of those being for simple possession, which helped result in 600,000 Canadians getting criminal records for mere possession. The Auditor General estimates that nearly $450 million was spent on drug control, enforcement and education programs from 1999 to 2000. As for costs to healthcare, only one half of one percent of the cost of drug use on the Ontario health system are pot-related.
Considering all that, and the fact that most people in jail for pot are completely non-violent, the stand of MacKay and his party that they're throwing the book at terrible, dangerous criminals, kind of falls apart. An argument that legalizing pot in Canada might cause tension on the broader of the United States holds a little more water, but then there's the fact that two states - Washington and Colorado - have legalized pot, and several more that have decriminalized it. The tide is turning for marijuana in the States, at least on the state and local levels. The Feds will continue to play hard ball, but like gay marriage, give it a few years and the dominoes may fall with an astounding thud.
And maybe that's where Trudeau's eyes are, on the future. It's a provocative gamble, one that may or may not pay off depending on the winds that blow Trudeau's way. However, the last time a Liberal leader led this boldly on a progressive issue it was Stephane Dion and his Green Shift plan, and we all know how that turned out. Of course, the Conservative evisceration of Dion's leadership was child's play as compared to what it might take to tank Trudeau, but Dion had the advantage of starting from a stronger place than where the Liberals are now. The question is, how will people react, and will the Conservatives be able to make enough people afraid of Trudeau's pot-legal Canada to make a difference?
Now I'm not a pot head, but legalization makes a lot of sense to me. Aside from the obvious benefits to people who could use marijuana medicinally and without the over-regulation that exists now, but legalizing marijuana would also demystify the drug. Back during Prohibition,drinking was as much about the culture as it was about the drinking: the music, the speakeasies, et al. Sure it was about drinking too, but if that's what it was all about, you would just go to the beer baron, pocket your bottle of hooch and take it home to swill on by yourself of the company of a close friend. I'm not a fan of stoner culture per se, the annual 4/20 display on Johnston Green at the University of Guelph is an embarrassment to me as a Gryphon alumni because it's all about the "look at ma, I'm smoking a doobie," petty rebellion of pot use. But I have a feeling that such displays would go away quick if you could pick up pot at the convenience store next to cigarettes, or at the counter at the LCBO. If the Conservatives want to do something about pot, they'd come out for legalizing it too. Everyone would quit because no one would ever associate anything Stephen Harper's a part of with anything that's cool.
As for Trudeau's gambit, I think the facts are on his side, but in modern politics, as we've seen, the facts often have little to do with winning elections.