Is Justin Trudeau's pot honesty the best policy?

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's revelation that he has smoked marijuana since being elected to the House of Commons came as a surprise to some, but it was one that was deliberately planned behind the scenes and the strategic move is stirring debate about honesty among politicians.

Liberal leader admits to using pot since being elected as an MP

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced questions from the media in Quebec City Thursday following published comments on his marijuana use. (Francis Vachon/Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's revelation this week that he has smoked pot since being elected to the House of Commons caught some people off guard, but the surprising admission wasn't a spontaneous slip of the tongue, it was deliberate.

Sources have told CBC News the marijuana confession was an intentional move on Trudeau's part.

The admission itself was a surprise to Ian Capstick, a communications and political strategy specialist, but he believes it was done on purpose.

"Brutally honest," Capstick said about what Trudeau revealed in an interview with the Huffington Post's Althia Raj. "But, of course, at the same time that it is brutally honest, it was most certainly a tactical manoeuvre.

"I really think a lot of this is about media management, a lot of this is about message management," said Capstick, a former NDP strategist and press secretary to the party's late leader Jack Layton. 

Trudeau not only shared details of his own drug use history during the interview but his brother's — revealing that Michel was facing a marijuana possession charge before he died in an avalanche in 1998.

Raj said on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Thursday that she asked each leader's office when the last time they smoked pot was and under what circumstances. She was invited to Trudeau's office for a 20-minute interview where he gave his answer: about three years ago while hosting a dinner party with friends at his home.

Trudeau said one of his friends lit up a joint, passed it around and he "had a puff." It wasn't his first time. Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Thursday that he's taken puffs five or six times in his life and that it's "not my thing."

It's not unheard of for MPs to acknowledge they have tried marijuana at some point in their lives but for one to admit they have used it while in office is what is unusual. What makes it even more newsworthy is that this MP is trying to become prime minister.

Help or hurt his chances at the polls?

Will Trudeau's honesty help or hurt his chances of achieving that goal? The answer of course depends on who you ask. 

The admission immediately opened Trudeau up to attacks from Conservatives and the NDP for showing poor judgment and flouting the law, with representatives from both parties saying he's clearly not prime minister material.

"It clearly shows he's in over his head," Tory MP Blake Richards said on Power & Politics.

NDP MP Françoise Boivin said the example Trudeau is setting is questionable and that he's seizing on the pot issue to get attention.

Liberals defended Trudeau by saying Canadians will respect a leader who is honest and transparent about controversial issues.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday during a news conference with his Indonesian counterpart that he has not smoked marijuana.

"I came of age politically in the 1980s and I can recall when one of President (Ronald) Reagan's nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court had to withdraw because of his use of that substance, so I took my example from that," Baird said.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney also said he did not partake, while poking fun at Trudeau, who does not drink coffee.

"We'll let Canadians interpret Mr. Trudeau's words and actions," Kenney said. "All I can say is, I would like to make a public confession that I do drink coffee."

While the parties disagree about the consequences of the admission, political watchers such as Capstick and Nik Nanos, president and CEO of Nanos Research, agree on why Trudeau may have been so forthcoming.

"I think what we don't know is whether this was done to pre-empt what the Liberals thought might have been a risk during an election campaign," said Nanos. "And that it's better to deal with it now than to have it sprung upon you through a Conservative attack ad during an election."

"As a communicator you're constantly thinking what if? And how would I mitigate the damage?" Capstick said, adding that political aides always get their bosses to "spill their guts" so they know what they may have to deal with down the line.

Pot policy reversal

"He could have had it on his mind, that he was just a touch worried that that was going to come out at an inopportune time," Capstick said about Trudeau's possible motivation.

Capstick and Nanos also both said Trudeau's camp would have been preparing for him to answer questions about any use of marijuana given the Liberal leader's recent policy reversal.

Trudeau first stirred the pot debate in July when he said he now backs the legalization, not just the decriminalization, of it and that while he doesn't encourage people to use marijuana, regulating it will help keep it out of the hands of young people. In his early days as an MP, Trudeau voted in favour of mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession but he now says his views have changed.

"If you're going to be advocating for the legalization of marijuana, well guess what? It's now legitimate to have some very serious questions asked about when the last time you smoked marijuana was and what the circumstances were," said Capstick, president of MediaStyle.

Capstick said the level of candidness and amount of details that Trudeau shared in the interview provided a certain amount of authenticity that could particularly appeal to young Canadians.

"He's not going to lose any votes because of this," he said.

Nanos doesn't see it as a big risk either, as long as there aren't more big revelations about his personal behaviour in the future that will add up to create a negative narrative about Trudeau.

"Unto itself I'm not sure if it's a major risk. because what will happen is for those people that already don't like Justin Trudeau this just will be another reason not to like him. For those individuals that support Justin Trudeau, they'll probably be applauding the fact that he's been transparent," the pollster said.

Capstick will be looking for the kinds of polls Nanos does to see what kind of impact Trudeau's pot policy and honesty will have.

"Will it hurt him? Will it help him? Nobody's going to know the answers to those questions until we start to see some legitimate public opinion research on it."

With files from The Canadian Press