The decision by the young Mr. Trudeau to advocate for the legalization of marijuana brings to mind a once-told but still wonderful story about his father. To set the scene, it was the early 1970s. I was then assistant to the prime minister, travelling with him, and we had instituted a series of “regional tours” to show the political flag in all parts of the country.
Southwestern Ontario was the target on this occasion, and so it came to pass that we arrived in the town of Guelph. Of course, local industry needs must be recognized, and so we found ourselves in a bull semen factory, where the product was extracted in ways still unknown to me and then shipped to lucky cows throughout North America.
This particular plant activity was the butt of much ribald humour by the 20 or so reporters along, but they had another thing on their minds that day. This surfaced at the daily tour press conference, which was fortuitously held in the boardroom of the factory.
That morning had arrived the long-awaited report of the Le Dain Commission on the non-medical use of drugs. Gerald Le Dain – a friend of the prime minister and eventually a Supreme Court judge – had recommended the decriminalization of marijuana, quite a bombshell in those days. Thus, the first question had little to do to do with rutting animals in the barnyard and everything to do with a young generation of humans sucking the smoke of “weed,” or “grass,” as the substance was commonly known in those days.
So here it came: “Mr. Prime Minister, what do you think of the Le Dain recommendation on marijuana?” Trudeau père was nothing if not quick, but his response startled even a long-time observer. He looked around the room and saw a blackboard. It was blank save for a permanent painting of Elsie the Cow, a well-known commercial image quite at home in this particular setting.
He walked over to the board, picked up a piece of chalk and drew a cartoonist’s speech balloon out of the cow’s mouth. Therein he wrote the following words: “I … like … grass.” And then said, “Next question.”
The room exploded in laughter. The prime minister was thought by many to be a secret smoker, though in many travels with him I saw not the slightest evidence of that. But the reply was hilariously consistent with the myth, in a way that could not be proven. The conference moved on to other matters, and in a longer time frame, the Le Dain report was of little effect, although prior to the 1980 election, Mr. Trudeau did put into the platform some minor promises that disappeared after his defeat by Joe Clark.
Now the issue is back, revived by another Trudeau, fittingly enough, and it will surely have more traction this time around. My guess is that, unless the Tories and New Democrats are clever, legalization will become one of the defining issues of the next election. But the Tories are trapped by their social conservative ideology, dead set against. This, of course, is perfectly of a piece with the rest of their antediluvian views on crime and punishment and quite out of touch with the public view.
The New Democrats by contrast have taken the “safe” route of some sort of soft decriminalization of possession, but – ahem – certainly not soft on drugs, “gateway” or otherwise. But Canadians have moved past that. So Justin Trudeau has jumped them all and carved out a clever and distinguishing niche policy. This also has for him the merit of suggesting he has the smarts to take into account other vaguely imagined reform aspirations of the public too little appreciated by the political class.
Until recently, the realpolitik thought has been that Canada cannot do the sensible thing with marijuana because the Americans, drug warriors to the point of insanity, would make us pay heavily. They surely have ways of doing this in NAFTA-proof ways, seriously slowing down border crossings by detailed inspections seeking the dreaded weed, for example.
That has now changed. One could not want more evidence than the relaxed reaction of the Obama administration to the legalization of the substance in Washington state and Colorado. The American public generally has reached the same conclusion as those two states, and a bit of Canadian leadership here is now internationally affordable.
So I think the Conservatives have this choice: They can change their drug policy. Or this issue, and others of a similar sort, will be a significant part of why Canadians change their government in 2015.