Another Argument Against Legalizing Pot Goes Up In Smoke

The stoned slacker vote is up for grabs

In the midst of a largely status-quo election, several groundbreaking ballot initiatives passed last night. Puerto Rico voted to apply for statehood. Same sex marriage was legalized in Maine and Maryland, and was upheld in Washington State, snapping a 32 vote losing streak for equal marriage proponents. And both Washington State and Colorado voted for complete marijuana legalization and regulation. The implications of this in Canada could be far reaching, and I’m not just talking about a spike in “road trips” from Vancouver to Seattle over reading week. I expect what happened last night will lead to some sober reflection on Canadian drug laws.

At least it should, because on the very same day marijuana laws in these two states became more liberal than Amsterdam, an omnibus bill imposing mandatory sentencing for drug crimes in Canada came into effect. So while ganja may be coming to a store near you in Denver, a student who grows 6 marijuana plants in his UBC dorm room and shares them with his friends could be looking at 9 months in jail.

While the NDP and Liberals have spoken against these “tough on crime” measures, both parties have been rather timid on the drug file in recent years. In March, Thomas Mulcair said he was against decriminalization because marijuana leads to mental illness. He later backtracked, saying he was confused between decriminalization and legalization; in either event, it’s safe to say we won’t see much movement from the NDP on this issue anytime soon. When asked about marijuana by High School students in 2010, Michael Ignatieff showed his deft ability to relate to youth by telling them he’d rather see them “digging ditches” than smoking “marijuana cigarettes”.

Ignatieff elaborated on his position by pointing to border problems legalizing the drug in Canada would create. Indeed, supporters of the current prohibition laws are quick to claim legalizing a product in Canada that is illegal in the US would lead to everything from chilled diplomatic relations to 10-hour lineups and full car searches at the border. But thanks to voters in Washington and Colorado, these arguments have now gone up in smoke. After all, no one’s going to risk smuggling joints across the border when you can just as easily buy American.

Most importantly, should these ballot measures withstand almost-certain legal challenges, there will now be two trials to cite when making the case for or against legalization. For better or wose, we’re about to find out what legalization really means; I imagine social scientists are already giddy with excitement at the prospect of crunching the crime data. If unintended consequences or logistical nightmares rear their head, no one will look at legalization in Canada for another 30 years – But if the results are largely positive and the tax dollars roll in, the case for legalization will no longer be theoretical. Suddenly, the risk won’t look quite so big and the change won’t seem quite as scary.

Regardless of what the courts say, yesterday’s votes will serve to embolden legalization activists on both sides of the border. Washington and Colorado may be blue states, but Obama only carried them with slim majorities – surely us public-healthcare-gay-marriage-loving socialists in Canada are at least as supportive of marijuana legalization, eh? These results should therefore give everyone pause to rethink the common wisdom that being labelled “soft on drugs” is campaign kryptonite. After all, the most basic rule of politics is that if the public supports something, it doesn’t hurt a politician to also support it.

Despite that, I can’t see Harper or Mulcair changing their positions – they’ve both stated their opposition to legalization and both are timid risk-averse politicians. But what about the Liberals, whose members voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana at their convention earlier this year? As I wrote at the time, there are many below-the-surface electoral implications to consider before running on a pro-pot platform. Who feels strong enough about this issue to change their vote over it? Does this help Liberal fundraising efforts? Does this play to the larger narrative of the Liberals as the party of “evidence-based” policy? Does it detract from the rest of the platform? If Justin Trudeau is the next Liberal leader, does this show he’s gutsy and stands for something, or does it play into the “airhead” narrative? Would this, combined with Justin’s youth appeal, actually get young Canadians out to the polls?

It’s a complex electoral calculus, but what happened south of the border last night might very well be the tipping point that prompts the Liberals to light up and run on legalization in 2015.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in 2012 US Election, Federal Politics, Policy, US Politics

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at www.calgarygrit.ca and online at the National Post.

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14 Responses to Another Argument Against Legalizing Pot Goes Up In Smoke

  1. Nuna D. Above

    “a student who grows 6 marijuana plants in his UBC dorm room and shares them with his friends could be looking at 9 months in jail.”

    What kind of jail sentence did Liberals impose on the western wheat farmer who cut his own wheat and gave it to a 4H club? Are laws against not obeying the Wheat Board not as ridiculous as pot laws? Or is this another reason why Western and rural voters should never vote Liberal?

    • Marc from soccer

      “Are laws against not obeying the wheat board not as ridiculous as pot laws?”

      No, they’re not. Those two examples are not comparable. They don’t prove the point you want to prove at all.

      • Nuna D. Above

        Because you say so? Well that certainly settles the issue. Making it illegal for western grain farmers to do what Ontario grain farmers are allowed to do is moronic.

    • CalgaryGrit

      What kind of jail sentence did Liberals impose on the western wheat farmer who cut his own wheat and gave it to a 4H club?

      This is a bit besides the point, but I’d be curious to know if this actually ever happened. Feel free to share an article.

      • Nuna D. Above

        Put “wheat farmer jailed” into a search engine and you will get a few stories. And it isn’t beside the point if you’re raising the topic of ridulous jail sentences. And why should growing wheat be monitored by the government more than growing pot? The Liberals have been as ridiculous in the past as you’re accusing the Conservatives of being now. Are you saying, “Legalize pot, but bring back the wheat board.” Or are you saying, “Harper was right on the wheat board and should take the same stand towards growing pot-no jail time”?

        • CalgaryGrit

          I typed it into google and one of the first stories that came up talked about the “myth” of farmers going to jail. The only ones who ever did went to jail to prove a point, rather than pay a small fine:

          http://www.agriville.com/cgi-bin/forums/viewThread.cgi?1344028114

          Regardless, that’s very much besides the point. People who traffic pot should go to jail so long as it is illegal. Arguing to dismantle the wheat board and to legalize pot are two very different issues.

          • Marc from soccer

            Exactly.

  2. Jamie Elmhirst

    I’m in favour of legalizing marijuana, but let’s not look at the implications with purely rose coloured glasses.

    Organized crime will not disappear – not with a still largely illegal 330 person market to the South of us. There will still be a lot of room for organized criminals to operate profitably in Canada – and they will.

    It’s completely unclear what the US federal government reaction to these new state laws will be. My guess, this is going to be a very bumpy road in Washington State and Colorado.

    While Canadians may not want to see casual pot users and growers get thrown in jail, they also do not want to share the road with stoned drivers. There is a lot of work to do in amending the Criminal Code to properly regulate the legal use of marijuana.

    And lastly, while I am a legalization proponent, I would no more like my children to use marijuana than I would like them to smoke or drink excessively. This will largely be a legalized vice, as opposed to the legalized virtue that marijuana advocates pretend. Yes, marijuana has medicinal properties for some, but most folks who use it simply want to get stoned. The list of highly successful, motivated heavy pot users is still pretty damn short.

  3. Paul O

    You conveniently ignore a lot of basic facts in your post. Not the least of which is the fact that the United States of America is just that – individual States, united as a republic.

    Each State is sovereign, as is the USA as a whole. Each sovereign implements its own laws with due regard for the other.

    The ballot initiatives in these two states don’t change that. And federal drug laws remain fully in force, with the Obama Administration making clear that its position has not changed.

    For example, if you have the remnants of a toke in your car when you drive across into Washington State, you are just as likely next month as last month to have your car impounded and face prosecution, because the border is a federal responsibility.

  4. hosertohoosier

    What strikes me as interesting is… pushing for legalization, as opposed to decriminalization, did not seem to lose the amendment much support. It still passed pretty handily. I think this is more common in politics than we realize.

    Obamacare, for instance, polled at about 40-60 (60 opposed). Single payer probably polled at similar numbers, despite being far more radical. And indeed, most of those opposed probably thought Obamacare was essentially universal healthcare.

    So be bold – because in an era of attack ads, tepid plans will just get spun as radical caricatures anyway.

    Other takeaway: the amendment passed despite piss-poor youth turnout.

    • CalgaryGrit

      Good point. Given the confusion around pot legalization/decriminalization and the fear mongering we’ll see from opponents, I’d just as soon go all the way. Intelectually, legalization is a stronger argument anyways, since you can talk about starving organized crime and taxing it.

      • Paul O

        You can talk about starving organized crime all you want. Facts differ.

        Comparisons with Prohibition fail to account for the “distribution channel” problem faced by the bootleggers, which is not faced by drug dealers.

        They also fail to account for other illegal activities in which those same criminals are currently engaged, and which they are likely to focus on even more should one revenue stream be diminished even slightly. It’s not like their market is going to disappear.

        They further fail to account for the millions of “customers” who would remain “ineligible” for the drug under any proposed legalization scheme, and who would remain customers of the drug lords.

        I’ll leave it to others to discuss the social destruction brought about by pot, and the significant percentage of the user base whose lives would be (and have been) destroyed by the drug.

  5. MPAVictoria

    “I’ll leave it to others to discuss the social destruction brought about by pot, and the significant percentage of the user base whose lives would be (and have been) destroyed by the drug.”

    Ha! Social conservatives are hilarious.

Reply to Jamie Elmhirst

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