Justin Trudeau, the leader of the once mighty Liberal Party of Canada, is blowing some smoke at the Harper Conservatives’ tough on crime platform. Some politicians use their summer sabbaticals to pump up support in their ridings; the barbecue circuit they call it. But Trudeau went national with his statement that marijuana use should be legalized.
Trudeau, the eldest son of the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, grew up in the lap of politics, so we cannot assume he is being naïve by taking this tack. It is not a new position inside the Trudeau political dynasty either, since Trudeau père, it has been said, had also acknowledged use.
Ten years ago when Liberal Jean Chrétien was prime minister, the matter of loosening penalties for marijuana possession was put forward. Chrétien wanted to ease the penalty for possession away from imprisonment and to impose a range of fines instead, basically to ticket persons in possession of the drug. But that would have meant going up against the tough stance the U.S. was taking in its ‘War on Drugs’.
That was then. As of last November through U.S. voter approval, marijuana users, and consequently the industry of growers, in Washington and Colorado were given legal cover regarding personal possession and use for residents of legal age, which is 21 years.
Trudeau began positioning his stance on this matter when he was in the leadership race to replace interim leader Bob Rae. At that time he spoke about decriminalizing marijuana. Now he’s gone all the way to legalization.
It only makes sense at this time. Once the vast middle class normalizes any type of social behaviour there is greater momentum for it to be sanctioned by laws as well. The perception that marijuana is a dangerous drug has long disappeared.
A ruling in 2000 by the Ontario Court of Appeal noted that marijuana does not have the level of harmful effects associated with alcohol, tobacco and hard drugs. Marijuana proponents argue that the only criminal behaviour associated with the substance is related to growing, merchandising and use as defined by law, unlike associated lethal effects of other legal intoxicants or opiates. Alcohol related deaths, for instance, amount to some 4,000 annually in Canada.
There is also strong advocacy for the medicinal benefits of marijuana in treating such illnesses as epilepsy, glaucoma, cancer, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis. But, despite legal allowances, there is reasonable concern among medical practitioners regarding prescribing for medical use, given the legal question. So you can be sure people affected by this issue are paying attention.
Trudeau’s making public his position on this matter meets a number of aims along with the attack on Harper’s defining crime platform. It sends a signal to voters of all ages, and that includes young people not inclined to vote, that the Liberals intend to be a distinct political alternative going forward.
Taking a page from U.S. President Barack Obama’s winning campaign strategy, Trudeau has also made a point of aiming his speeches and selected issues for consideration squarely at the middle class.
Observers used to the politics of even a decade ago will have to put aside that rubric in order to recognize what Trudeau is doing. There has been criticism of his highlighting this particular issue over other more substantive policy. But what has to be clear is that he is working on drawing in numbers. Policy is good fodder for political insiders, but public image is critical.
Trudeau’s marijuana stance is also about setting an example of transparency in action, laying the groundwork for simple messages that will resonate with voters on the way to the 2015 federal elections. Anyone who paid attention to his official leadership campaign launch – that charity boxing match with now disgraced Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau to raise money for cancer research, in which he beat Brazeau – will recognize the Liberal leader as a canny politician.
The Conservatives may wish to be dismissive about Trudeau’s foray into the marijuana issue, but what they should understand is that Trudeau is preaching to a very large choir. In the days after he went public revealing that he, himself, has used marijuana, even while a Member of Parliament, the polls showed approval ratings for the Liberals went up.