Marijuana might not be the new beer, but Trudeau could cast off the taboo

In 2017, there is at least no shame in being on the side of those who choose to imbibe. Justin Trudeau's government might have just put Canada on a path toward at least grudging acceptance of those who toke.

Ministers refrain from mentioning 'marijuana' while looking ahead to its legalization

Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier, Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Jane Philpott, Minister of Health and parliamentary secretary Bill Blair listen to a question after during a news conference in Ottawa on legalizing marijuana. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In the days leading up to Thursday's potentially momentous tabling of legislation to legalize marijuana, there was concern on Parliament Hill about the availability and affordability of alcohol.

With a rallying cry of "Free the beer," Conservative MP John Barlow tabled a bill on Tuesday that would facilitate the sale and transport of alcohol across provincial borders.

Meanwhile, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose continued to pester the prime minister about his government's decision to increase taxes on beer and wine: five cents more for a two-four and a penny on a litre of Chardonnay.

That increase, alongside a tax change that covers ride-sharing services and the elimination of the public transit tax credit, caused Ambrose to declare that Trudeau was mounting an attack on Canadians' Saturday nights.

But with the tabling of the Cannabis Act on Thursday, there was decidedly less enthusiasm for legally permitted inebriation.

"Justin Trudeau said he wants to keep pot out of the hands of our kids," said Colin Carrie, the Conservative health critic, "but for this legislation, it was a promise to pot smokers, not to parents."

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Parents and pot smokers are apparently distinct and separate groups that do not overlap.

Beer, of course, is a source of Canadian patriotism; if not for beer commercials we might have little sense of ourselves.

Marijuana might never enjoy such exalted status. But if the Trudeau government can get this anywhere close to right, there might come a day when MPs — even Conservative MPs — feel comfortable acknowledging its general consumption.

The drug that dare not speak its name

In fairness to Carrie, not even the Liberals were in a particularly festive mood.

Over the course of a 43-minute news conference, not a single reference to "marijuana" was uttered by any of the four ministers and one parliamentary secretary who were lined up to explain the situation to reporters.

This, rather, was about "cannabis," and making it harder for the country's youth to acquire it, while undercutting the ability of organized crime to profit from the illegal sale of it.

​"This is a very important day," said Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief, whom the Liberals cannily selected to front this campaign commitment. 

"I've spent most of my adult life protecting children and keeping communities safe. And from experience, I know the use of cannabis among our young people is among the highest in the world. I believe that we have to do a better job of protecting our kids."

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The ministers to Blair's right then took turns explaining the various restrictions and punishments that would be legislated into existence, including new penalties for selling to a minor and new screening for impaired driving.

"I want to be very clear, it is not our intent to promote the use of this drug," said Blair, who seems certain to have busted up more parties than he has ever participated in. "We want to permit through legalization, and strict regulation, more healthful, safer and socially responsible use."

How Trudeau embraced the politics of pot

In truth, the government's argument now is basically in line with the logic Trudeau offered four years ago when the Liberal leader, sporting long hair and wearing a T-shirt while taking questions from the public in a park in B.C., stated his support for legalization.

A month later, he admitted to having smoked marijuana since being elected. For that, he was accused of setting a bad example for Canada's children.

The Liberal Party was actually ahead of him on the issue, having adopted a resolution in favour of legalization in 2012. But it was the first of several positions that would help cast Trudeau as slightly more bold and daring than usual.

Not, in the case of marijuana, because he was offering a new approach to law enforcement. But because he was embracing a potentially risky position and implicitly casting off a social taboo. The general impression might have been that a fresh new leader was offering generational change.

Could weed be the new beer?

A year and a half into his turn as prime minister, marijuana looms as a significant test of his government's ability to implement policy and responsibly manage the country, with great risk that any unflattering side-effects (say, hordes of stoned teenagers roaming the streets) could scare the sort of suburban parents who decide elections

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Even if the worst fears of those parents aren't realized, there are bound to be complications and concerns. This being Canada, many of the details will have to be worked out between the federal government and the provinces. Marijuana has been prohibited for nearly a century and change is never easy. 

But it was 119 years ago that a national plebiscite found majority support for the prohibition of alcohol. Wilfrid Laurier's government didn't follow suit because Quebecers had voted against it, but various provinces later went for temporary temperance. And Prince Edward Island only got around to repealing its ban in 1948.

In 2017, there is at least no shame in being on the side of those who choose to imbibe.

Trudeau's government might have just put Canada on a path toward at least grudging acceptance of those who toke.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.