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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks with the media following party caucus meetings on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper's Conservatives want to talk pot. Specifically, they want to talk about Justin Trudeau's admission that he smoked marijuana with friends a few years ago, while an MP, and the Liberal Leader's support for legalization.

In radio ads, at news conferences, and during discussions with reporters in the halls of Parliament, Conservatives are fixated on Mr. Trudeau's willingness to take the drug off the list of substances banned in Canada.

Which probably says more about political strategy than it does about any defence of existing marijuana laws.

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When reporters asked Treasury Board President Tony Clement this week what he thought about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's experience with crack cocaine, Mr. Clement brought the message back to Mr. Trudeau.

"The government's position is very clear," he said. "We don't condone any person in Canada for illegal drug use whether they are the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada or whether they are the Mayor of Toronto, We don't condone that kind of activity."

Asked if he believes smoking pot is an offence of the same magnitude as smoking crack, Mr. Clement said it is wrong to distinguish between illegal drugs.

To say "'well, it's this kind of illicit drug that's contrary to the Criminal Code and it's not that kind of drug,' I don't accept that," he said. "I think if it's contrary to the Criminal Code and you know it is then you are violating the standards of society. And as I have said before, you have to be accountable for your actions."

Thomas Mulcair, the NDP Leader whose party supports decriminalization of marijuana, seems to agree with Mr. Clement. "I think that both are criminal offences and the public has the right to choose and to analyze," he said of smoking pot and smoking crack.

Which may seem like an odd stand given where the Canadian public sits on the issue.

An alcohol-and-drug-use monitoring survey conducted by Health Canada in 2011 found that 39 per cent of Canadians had used marijuana at some point in their lives and one in 10 had used it within the previous year. No other illegal drug had been used be even one in 100 of us.

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In addition, while a Forum Research survey conducted this year suggested that 70 per cent of Canadians want to see marijuana legalized or at least decriminalized, other polls suggest support for loosening restrictions on other illegal drugs hovers at 10 per cent or less.

Mr. Trudeau doesn't want to talk about it – perhaps because he fears he might say something that could provide more fodder for his opponents. When asked this week whether he thinks there is a distinction to be made between crack and marijuana, he replied: "I am not going to engage in that kind of political positioning and posturing right now."

But the attacks on his marijuana policy have been unrelenting.

Mr. Harper wrote a letter this week to voters in Brandon-Souris where there will be a by-election on Monday – a vote that polls suggest the Liberals could win and one that has been Conservative or Progressive Conservative since 1953 except for one election. In the letter, the Prime Minister said: "Justin Trudeau's plan to legalize marijuana will make it more accessible to our kids and encourage recreational drug use."

Justice Minister Peter MacKay took time at the end of a news conference last week to castigate Mr. Trudeau for talking about marijuana at a school on a reserve west of Brandon – even though it was the high-school students in the room who prompted the discussion and the Liberal Leader prefaced his response by warning that marijuana is dangerous for young people.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are running radio ads across the country, some targeted at ethnic voters. In one of the English-language spots, a woman says: "There's so much I worry about as a mom. Justin Trudeau's plan to make marijuana legal certainly doesn't help ..."

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Why would a political party attack an opponent for a policy that seems to have some resonance with voters?

Perhaps the Conservatives believe that, while most Canadians favour loosening of marijuana laws, that does not mean they are ready to back a leader who partakes of the drug. Maybe pot use fits well with their narrative that Mr. Trudeau is "not ready to govern" and "in over his head."

But pollster Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research, says he thinks it is a communications tactic designed to to try to divert the attention away from the other problems facing Mr. Harper's government. "Any coverage of the comments made by the Conservatives related to Justin Trudeau takes up space that hypothetically could be focused on the Senate controversy," said Mr. Nanos.

And opposing a softening of the drug laws speaks to the Conservative base – the base they are counting on to get to the polls in Brandon-Souris on Monday.

"When they engage in that type of messaging," said Mr. Nanos, "it's actually targeted at their core supporters, not broader Canadians – core supporters who might be a little more small-c conservative in their views about what's appropriate for a Prime Minister to do or not to do. It's a bit of an inoculation strategy for their core supporters not to vote Liberal."

Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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