After decades of debate, Justin Trudeau’s government has made history by legalizing something that almost half of Canadians have done: smoking marijuana.
This is a milestone that meant pushing back against the public’s self-contradictory hesitation. Polls showed roughly two-thirds of Canadians favoured legalization, but half still thought the date should be moved back.
That’s why the bill’s passage through the Senate is a political marker for Mr. Trudeau’s government: It is a success in overcoming inertia. There aren’t many Canadians who still believe their fellow citizens should go to jail for smoking a joint. Still, they worry about the pace of change.
This Prime Minister hasn’t lived up to all his heady political promises of change, such as electoral reform. But on this touchstone issue, he was willing to apply persistent momentum to make history.
And now there will be a rearguard action against it.
Something will go wrong with legal marijuana. Almost certainly, there will be glitches in how it is sold at the retail level, or a few kids will manage to buy it in a legal shop. Something.
In the same way that the Liberals in the 1980s talked about blaming “every sparrow that falls” on Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States, opponents of legalization, notably the federal Conservatives, are planning to blame any problems on the way marijuana was legalized – not that it was legalized, but the way Mr. Trudeau legalized it. MP Alain Rayes, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant, said that was a big issue in the Chicoutimi-Le Fjord by-election that the Tories won handily on Monday.
There’s a long list of concerns. There’s the complaint that provinces haven’t had enough time, despite the 31 months Mr. Trudeau’s government has been in power, vowing to legalize. There’s the complaint that police don’t yet have enough equipment to test for stoned drivers, which seems to be based on the idea that stoned driving will start with legalization. There have been concerns that Canadians crossing the U.S. border may have to lie about having smoked marijuana if they don’t want to be barred. Just as they do now.
Senators repeated concerns that legalization might strain relations with the United States or President Donald Trump – a lot like the way Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs discouraged Pierre Trudeau, and George W. Bush’s anti-drug policies were a deterrent for Paul Martin.
Political inertia has been heavy for the 39 years since then-PM Joe Clark mooted the idea of decriminalization in 1979, as it was in 2003 and 2004, when the governments of both Mr. Martin and Jean Chrétien introduced decriminalization but never seriously tried to pass it.
In the last moments of debate on the bill Tuesday night, there were warnings to slow down, such as those of Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk, who feared “pieces are not in place” to be ready for legalization.
Political inertia isn’t always bad. There can be wisdom in a reluctance to overturn old ways for some politician’s fancy idea. Then there can be times when we keep dumb laws for fear of change.
The criminal ban on marijuana was a dumb law. It was a law that discredited laws. It made a crime, punishable by five years in jail, out of possession of marijuana, when, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada study, 42.5 per cent of Canadians 15 and over had done just that. Of course, most pot smokers didn’t go to jail. It was applied arbitrarily. It didn’t really count as a crime until it was suddenly applied to you – or your teenaged kid. And one in five teenagers between 15 and 17 tried pot, according to StatsCan.
On Tuesday night, some had dire warnings. Conservative Senator David Tkachuk warned that 50 years from now the government of Canada will be apologizing for the “havoc” the legalization bill created.
But it’s more likely that most of the recriminations will come quickly, within a few years, about the transition to new ways, not legalization itself. Most Canadians have been moving to this point for years. Mr. Trudeau’s government finally applied a little momentum to overcome the inertia.