One wouldn’t call Ottawa the latter-day Haight-Ashbury; nor were the damp past two months akin to the Summer of Love.
Yet it seems Canadians were talking an awful lot about getting high, specifically on pot, as in weed, bud, grass, cannabis, herb — take your pick.
It all started in mid-August when an article appeared in the Canadian edition of The Huffington Post containing what most commentators agreed was an astonishingly candid interview with Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau.
The Post had invited the three main party leaders to respond to the question: “when did you last smoke marijuana?” This was a no-brainer for Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who pleaded a life-long case of asthma that prevented him from smoking anything. Opposition and New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair admitted he had partaken of pot but provided no details.
Trudeau, however, summoned the Huff reporter to his Parliament Hill office to confess that he has smoked marijuana five or six times — and not that long ago. Indeed, he says, three years ago he had taken a hit off a joint passed around at a dinner party in his own backyard when the kids were with grandma.
While the admission that the 42-year-old Trudeau had sampled weed probably surprised few, some political foes condemned him for flaunting the law and setting a bad example while he was a sitting member of Parliament.
Since the story broke, a long parade of politicians have come clean on their pot pasts. Surprisingly, very few stated they had never, ever put lips to spliff.
Indeed, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose alleged use of stronger drugs has stirred controversy, gleefully admitted he’s “smoked a lot.”
Just as one cannot unsmoke a joint, it was clear that Trudeau’s confession was intended to get Canadians tripping on the question of the law and marijuana. His interview and subsequent public statements have sparked a heated debate on the continued criminalization of the use of marijuana.
Trudeau thus became the first Canadian federal party leader ever to advocate not just decriminalization but outright legalization and state control of the production and sale of marijuana.
Enforcement and punishment of pot offenders, he noted, costs Canadians some $500 million a year and has done little to curb use nor make a dent in organized crime supplying the dope. That’s a point endorsed by Canadian police chiefs, though they don’t back full legalization.
Trudeau said in the interview some 475,000 people have seen their “lives ruined” because of criminal convictions in the seven years since Stephen Harper has been prime minister.
Though the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization have been many and varied over the years, the reason no federal government has dared make a bold step is for fear of how the United States might react. That’s a sentiment Trudeau shares: “The biggest concern I always had was the thickening of the border and being off-side with the United States.”
With Washington State (bordering Canada) and Colorado pushing ahead with referendum-endorsed legalization and other states likely to follow, Trudeau now says Canadian legalization is not likely to be a big issue with whomever occupies the White House, “if it’s done right.”
That may be true, but one American legalist says Trudeau’s pot confession just might be an issue with border-protection officials. Washington State lawyer Len Saunders, quoted in a British Columbia newspaper, said the Liberal leader risks being refused entry to the United States because he’s admitted to using an illegal substance.
“If he’s elected prime minister, he can’t come into the U.S. without a waiver,” Saunders says.
He knows of several cases where such public admissions of drug use have gotten Canadians barred at the border.
Regardless, polls show Trudeau is on the right track in calling for liberalized marijuana laws, a factor he likely considered when he decided to do his full-disclosure interview.
Political pundits are now watching to see if or how the Harper government responds now that Trudeau has thrust the issue onto the public agenda.
Though a federal election is still two years away, pot may become a simmering wedge issue distinguishing the progressives from the Conservatives.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.