Justin Trudeau's pot admission could show loosening taboo

Canadians are learning a little more about the drug habits of their politicians, thanks to a spate of recent admissions on past marijuana use. But that doesn't mean other aspects of their elected officials' personal lives are fair game in the political arena, experts say.

Despite Liberal leader, premiers and a mayor admitting to smoking marijuana in past, many areas of politicians' personal lives still considered off limits

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks with reporters at the end of the party's caucus retreat in Georgetown, P.E.I. on Aug. 29. Last week, Trudeau admitted that he has smoked marijuana. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Canadians are learning a little more about the drug habits of their politicians, thanks to a spate of recent admissions on past marijuana use. But that doesn’t mean other aspects of their elected officials’ personal lives are fair game in the political arena, experts say.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said in an interview last week that he smoked marijuana about three years ago — after he had been elected as an MP — and that he had used marijuana a handful of times in his life.

Trudeau's statement set off a cascade of similar admissions as reporters put the same question to other elected politicians. Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said yesterday that he "would have tried it" while he was at university in the 1970s. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford both said this week they had smoked marijuana in the past. All four politicians made headlines for their remarks.

Parliament Hill has had its share of sex scandals, dating back to at least the Diefenbaker government in the 1950s, when a German prostitute and suspected Soviet spy named Gerda Munsinger had affairs with several cabinet ministers.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter says he tried marijuana in the 1970s. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But reporting on the personal lives of Canada's elected officials has been less common, compared to other Western countries such as the United States and Britain, said Ian Capstick, a communications specialist and former NDP strategist.

"Our media are not as obsessed with these types of questions. Nor do we, in specific comparison to the United States, have such a puritanical world view," he told CBC News. "You don’t tend to see the details of people’s personal sexual affairs tumbling out over the page of our newspapers and on our screens."

Shifting social mores

The issue of marijuana use has apparently become an exception to the rule, as attitudes toward its use have evolved. A poll released Saturday by Forum Research suggests that most Canadians support reforming federal marijuana laws, with 69 per cent of respondents indicating that they support either decriminalization "for small amounts of marijuana" or legalization as long as it is taxed.

A majority of every group, by age, gender, region, income, education, religion, ethnicity and party preference, favour one of those two options. That includes 62 per cent of Conservative supporters.

For 63 per cent of those polled, Trudeau's admission will have no impact on how they plan to vote. For those who say it will, 21 per cent are less likely to vote Liberal and 14 per cent say they are more likely.

The automatic telephone poll was conducted Aug. 23 and considered accurate plus or minus three per cent, 19 times out of 20.

"It’s a little bit like going 120 [kph] on the highway. Almost everybody drives 120 on the highway. That’s against the law as well," said Jaime Watt, executive chairman of Navigator, a political communications firm.

"What’s changed is the influence of the baby boom," Watt said on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. "The largest cohort that we have now is pretty much agreed that it’s OK to smoke marijuana once in a while.  That group of people is exerting its influence. This is one of the knock-on effects that you’re seeing."

Many areas of a politician’s personal life still remain off limits, such as a politician's family life, or their sexual orientation, said Marcel Wieder, president and CEO of communications firm Aurora Strategy Group.

As social mores have changed, however, politicians seem to be less wary about admitting the truth on an issue that is now more mainstream.

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"Boundaries change over time," Wieder said. "I think it’s fair to ask politicians whether drugs, recreational or other, have been used."

Meanwhile, he said elected officials have more of an incentive to answer questions honestly about their personal life, including marijuana use. The advent of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones mean that it’s easier to catch a politician in a lie today.

"If someone takes a photo or a video and posts it on YouTube it's there forever. Your political opponents will find it. Your potential constituents will find it," Wieder said.

"The issue is always, the cover-up is worse than the crime. If you take your medicine and you stand up and you admit your mistakes, the public tends to be more forgiving of you. If you try to hide and obfuscate, that’s when you get in trouble."