Jackson Doughart
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Trudeau's toke tactic
The Liberal leader's cynical statement on cannabis is a dubious campaign strategy.

Prince Arthur Herald, 30 July 2013

One cause for optimism for those who fear an electoral resurgence of the Liberal Party is Justin Trudeau’s strategic ineptitude. That is how I would characterize his recent decision to speak in favour of cannabis legalization, a position he has mentioned before but expanded upon last Thursday in a widely-covered press appearance in Vancouver. Conservatives such as Justice Minister Peter MacKay have criticized Trudeau’s decision to announce the position as well as his reasons for holding it, which include a belief that legalization will prevent young people from obtaining cannabis and will “allow for [the] development of a medical marijuana industry.”

The Harper Government, MacKay promises, has “no intention of legalization.” Even the New Democrats, who favour decriminalization instead of outright legalization — whatever practical distinction this would represent — have criticized his announcement, calling it irresponsible, an oversimplification of a “complicated issue”, and an example of “political pandering”, in the words of Deputy Leader Megan Leslie.

There is little question that this is indeed pandering. Nor is there any doubt as to the identity of his target, which is larger than the British Columbian constituency that the NDP has mentioned. Clearly, Trudeau is also addressing young voters or “Millennials” who overwhelmingly support legalization. It is ironic, though, that Trudeau’s principal argument for lifting prohibition is the prevention of its use by young people — the very demographic that would be most enthralled by the realization of Trudeau’s position, and a group that would be the most difficult to deter from using in the absence of a cannabis ban. It is in youth, after all, when the allures of peer pressure and the perceived ubiquity of “experimentation” with narcotics are at their strongest.

As usual, Trudeau is attacking a straw man when he characterizes his opponents as being motivated by “ideology and fear.” He ascribed similar qualities to the Right on the issue of the long-gun registry until he committed a Romney-esque flip-flop, taking a position identical to that of the government. Apparently, the classification of a position as irrational or ideological depends on whose position it is, not the reasons for which it is held. On the cannabis question, he must know that we right-wing monsters who are sceptical of legalization — speaking for myself, it is indeed scepticism that is open to evidence and argument, not prejudice in the proper sense of the term — are foremost and genuinely concerned with an increase in use by young people, not peddling an “ideology”. He must also know that “young people” connotes a substantial population that would be above the legal purchasing age of either 18 or 19 if the prohibition were overturned. And like tobacco and alcohol, whose apparent lack of use by minors is to be credited to legalization (though if common knowledge serves correctly, when my parents were minors in the 1970s and most teenagers smoked cigarettes, tobacco was as legal as it is today), of-age young persons could easily purchase legalized cannabis in a store and either give or resell it to minors.

According to the CBC, Trudeau says that his position is informed by “recent studies and evidence indicating that pot is no worse than nicotine or alcohol”, but he doesn’t say which studies or evidence those are, or in which respect cannabis is equivalent to nicotine and alcohol. In terms of health effects, cannabis use is indeed comparable with alcohol use in its correlation with mental illness and is comparable with both tobacco and alcohol in its ability to cause cancer — particularly testicular cancer in the case of cannabis. Unlike the others, though, cannabis use constitutes excess in any amount because of the change it inflicts in the user’s state. A person could smoke a cigarette and then fly a plane or perform heart surgery, and most people drink alcohol socially and in moderation, without the intent of inebriation. By contrast, inebriation or “getting high” is the purpose to all marijuana use. At any rate, I suspect that Trudeau was intending to highlight the relative harmlessness of cannabis vis-à-vis nicotine and alcohol, premised on the common misclassification thereof as a “soft” drug. As for his claim that legalization could spawn a booming marijuana industry, I would prefer some empirical evidence from Washington State and Colorado to the armchair projections of a former high-school drama teacher. For the moment, however, I would simply respond by referencing the case of that socialist paradise of Sweden, which is (like Canada) resource-rich and which manages to get by economically while maintaining a strict cannabis prohibition.

As I mentioned above, I am not opposed to a debate about cannabis legalization, or a debate about any issue for that matter. There are astute and thoughtful people who make logical arguments in favour of drug liberalization, and these arguments are important to consider. My reason for dismissing, with reason and evidence, the claims offered by Mr. Trudeau are that these particular arguments are neither logical nor supportable. In fact, what you heard from him last week was exactly what you hear from every wised-up 20-year-old who thinks he has made a knock-down case for legalization by a) unsupportably denying that cannabis is harmful, b) appealing to the freestanding and unqualified value of hedonistic liberty without following the argument to its logical conclusion, i.e., by advocating the legalization of all recreational drugs, including heroin and cocaine, and c) claiming that legalization would result in a marked economic advantage on the basis of conjecture. The archetypal 20-year-old is often clever enough to parrot the above arguments but not wise enough to realize that many young people are incapable of merely “experimenting” without forming a habit, sometimes to unfortunate and avoidable consequence. In other words, there is a selfishness at the root of those who can make these decayed arguments but who are not intellectually mature enough to examine them any further. And the almost-literal copying of these claims by the leader of a major political party lends credence to the accusation of opportunistic and cynical pandering.

A concluding word, then, about the implications of this episode for the Liberals’ grand strategy: It is usually quite easy to tell whether a Trudeau statement is carefully calibrated by advisors or articulated spontaneously. The former comes across as dry, scripted, and affected; the latter is often stunning in either its incoherence or its baseness, or both. I must say that I do not know the camp into which this statement falls, though time will certainly tell. Even if Trudeau’s position were correct, the tactical value of his announcement is questionable, if not worse. The Millennial constituency to which this position was largely addressed is already in Trudeau’s proverbial back pocket. His appeal to them (or, to be generational about it, “us”) relies on qualities that are utterly disconnected from policy ideas in any substantive sense. His manner of speaking, his appearance, and his identity politics are, in the minds of his young supporters, the man’s principal virtues. One Trudeaumaniac (his word, not mine) told me last week that he likes Justin because he “knows how to wear a polo shirt.” Mulcair and Harper can’t compete with that. Young people who normally do not participate in elections, in concert with older Canadians who are nostalgic for the era of his father, will be out in droves to vote for him in 2015, regardless of his plans for drug liberalization. But by taking this position on cannabis, Trudeau risks compromising the central message that will be critical to an electoral victory.

On the one hand, plenty of parents will be unenthusiastic about the ability of their 19-year-old son or daughter to walk into a store and buy cannabis, let alone about the government becoming a virtual shareholder in such an enterprise. Trudeau’s position would thereby undermine his credibility. But even more importantly, this announcement could put into doubt the center-right position that the Liberals will need to occupy if they are to attract enough centrist voters, especially in the former Liberal heartland of Ontario, who have recently shifted to the Conservatives despite an evident distaste for the current prime minister. There is hence much room on the political right for the Liberals to manoeuver, so long as leftist positions such as this do not interfere with the theme. In this respect, Thursday’s statement is one that Trudeau may come to regret.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com