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.