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Trudeau’s stand on pot legalization gives Harper a generational wedge

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to the media at English Bay in Vancouver on July 25, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

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Justin Trudeau could be creating a generation gap in Canadian politics, one that Stephen Harper will be happy to exploit.

The Liberal Leader affirmed last week that he supports the full legalization of marijuana. "Tax it, regulate," he told a gathering in Kelowna, B.C. "It's one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids because the current war on drugs, the current model, is not working."

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(Curmudgeonly grammar protest: Something can be "the only" or it can be "one of the few," but "one of the only" is impossible.)

There are several good reasons for legalizing pot. Recreational use of the drug is widespread and polls show that there is now popular support for legalization. Criminalizing a commonly accepted practice simply brings the law into disrepute. And taxing and regulating the product would deter criminals while enhancing government coffers.

Mr. Trudeau has taken an honest and principled stand on a contentious issue, something we rarely see in public life these days.

Politically, however, support for legalization is very, very risky.

Mr. Trudeau's stance on marijuana will appeal to younger voters, who are more socially liberal on all issues than older voters. But the young are also less likely to vote. In the last federal election, overall turnout was an anemic 61 per cent. But for Canadians aged 18-24 it was 39 per cent; for those aged 25-41 it was 45 per cent.

Mr. Trudeau, as everyone knows, is hoping to do an Obama. The American president galvanized Millennial voters in 2008 and 2012. Their strong turnout was a major factor in his victories. If Mr. Trudeau can also bring a new generation of voters to the polls, with a similar message of hope and change, he could reshape this country's political landscape in his favour.

Or he could fail. The young could remain apathetic and at home.

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Mr. Trudeau is obsessive in his pursuit of middle-class voters.

"Under my leadership, the Liberal Party of Canada's purpose will be to enhance the prospects of middle-class Canadians," he has said. "I will begin, spend, and end every day thinking about and working hard to solve this problem."

There is a particular group of middle-class Canadians who, politically, matter above all others. They live in a band of suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and Vancouver. There are so many of them that, for all intents and purposes, they elect the government. In many of these ridings immigrants form a majority, or at least a large minority, of the population.

Large pluralities of voters in these ridings voted Conservative in the last election. Victory for Mr. Trudeau hinges on getting them to shift their vote to the Liberals.

Immigrant middle-class suburban voters self-identify as more socially conservative than their equivalents who live in the downtowns. They place a greater emphasis on law and order, regardless of what the experts tell them about crime falling.

Just what part of a promise to legalize pot are they supposed to like?

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Expect the Conservatives to relentlessly attack Mr. Trudeau's support for legalizing marijuana as proof that he is soft on crime.

It may not matter. The increase in the youth vote for the Liberals may offset any losses among older voters. Or legalization may be a strategic wedge issue that generates new votes among the young, while older voters focus on other issues, such as the economy.

In any case, the Liberal strategy may be to take votes away from the NDP with this wedge. (The official opposition supports decriminalization but not legalization.) Though if this is the case, someone should remind the Liberals that winning means defeating the Conservatives, not the NDP.

Either way, Mr. Trudeau's stance on pot is likely to cleave the middle-class, with the Conservatives happily courting the older crowd – especially older suburban immigrants – and the Liberals hoping to make new inroads among the young.

But unless he really does succeed in doing an Obama, Mr. Trudeau may wish he had not turned pot into a wedge.

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