Because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can be such a polarizing figure in Canada, one of his inadvertent talents is clarifying the positions of his critics.
Before Trudeau came along, the question of how the Canadian electoral system was structured was not overly divisive. Today, thanks to his botched efforts to make the present system “fairer,” the status quo has become more jealously guarded by the right. His unprovoked decision to tightly associate his administration with Canada’s ultraliberal abortion regime has likewise pushed the Conservative Party into closer alliance with the antiabortion movement.
Trudeau’s decision to legalize marijuana, which officially took effect this week, seems destined to follow a similar script. So ill-conceived is the move, it can only improve the wisdom of anything conservatives conceive in contrast.
Before Trudeau, Canada had established a marijuana status quo that, while deeply flawed, was at least reflective of Canadians’ own inconsistent attitudes toward the drug. Marijuana remained nominally illegal, but the illegality was poorly enforced, with police and prosecutors mostly ignoring minor possession and dealing-related offenses. The mainstreaming of the notion in the early 2000s that smoking pot could be considered “medicine” signaled a significant cultural shift and helped quietly rationalize a proliferation of brazenly illegal retail pot shops in urban centers. Deference was afforded to law enforcement to distinguish innocuous neighborhood dealers from brazenly criminal enterprises, with raids and arrests of those who had clearly crossed the line from small-time vendors to drug kingpins, such as the Emerys of Vancouver, offered as proof the system was working.
Amid the erratic enforcement, pot’s illegality preserved symbolic virtue. At a cultural level, it served to reinforce a message every civilization benefits from hearing: Drugs are bad and shouldn’t be consumed. Parents had the law on their side when they told children to stay away from weed; principals and employers could justify zero-tolerance policies.
Even if the net effect was just a low-level sense of guilt and anxiety around the drug, there was value in this. Much of the apprehension we feel about committing minor offenses such as jaywalking, littering and petty theft come from a sense that these are negative acts that contribute to the erosion of a proper social order. A great deal of bad behavior is against the law without rising to the level of a high crime. Marijuana is a personal health hazard, a public nuisance and a habit-forming depressant that routinely hurts families, friendships, careers and other important relationships. The state held a legitimate mandate to stigmatize the substance.
Trudeau’s legalization plan has taken a wrecking ball to this delicate social order. His administration will not only carry responsibility for the consequences that follow but also bear the political fallout of tying his partisan brand to this haphazard project.
Even after delays and substantial consultations, Trudeau’s legalization rollout was tied to arbitrary timelines – a stunt implemented as it was conceived: shallowly, and for short-term electoral gain.
Creating any sort of coherent legal regime governing the buying and selling of recreational pot in Canada was destined to be an enormously complicated undertaking, given the country’s wide diffusion of regulatory authority among federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. Trudeau’s Cannabis Act, passed in June, sought to mask this reality with a sprawling, performative piece of legislation that empowers Ottawa to micromanage the national pot industry to an obsessive degree it clearly has neither the time nor intention of implementing (nor police departments, at any level, would be prepared to enforce). Provinces and cities have cobbled together their own legislation, but the compelled nature makes these commitments equally questionable.
The result is a mess of vague promises that have left Canadians with little certainty about what is actually going to be different in the coming months. Many long-standing dispensaries have declared themselves eager to continue selling their wares in defiance of the government, just as they always have. A spokesperson for the Toronto police summed up the situation with inadvertent candor, declaring things would remain “business as usual.” In other words, this bevy of new laws will be enforced with as much apathy as the old.
That old regime, in which pot was illegal but widely used, sired many negative social consequences, but responsibility was diffused, because the situation wasn’t anyone’s particular idea. By contrast, the lofty rhetoric Trudeau has used to justify this new regime of legalization – a cure for marijuana-related crime, persecutions and (most preposterously) consumption – presupposes a government prepared to own all the problems of a society in which pot is now explicitly condoned by the state. Hence so much fresh concern over matters such as stoned driving, pot-related ER visits, the attractiveness of edibles to children and the difficulties marijuana users face entering the United States. None of these are new phenomena, yet through legalization’s stamp of approval, Ottawa has abruptly become far more accountable for their existence.
For those who have never trusted or supported marijuana legalization, Trudeau’s underwhelming implementation does offer some upsides. As his earlier forays into the politics of abortion and electoral reform have proven, the prime minister’s clumsy style has a tendency to awaken the previously disinterested.
If the net consequence of legalization is the solidification of consensus among Trudeau’s rivals that marijuana’s corrosive role in Canadian society is a matter serious enough to deserve government attention beyond a lazy wave of the “legalization” wand, then some good may yet come of this.
McCullough is a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver.