Why the U.S. is going to pot, and other liberal adventures

Canadians used to be pretty smug about how progressive they were compared to the U.S., Neil Macdonald writes. But that wheel looks to be turning, and rethinking marijuana use is part of how American society is changing.

There is a new greening of American society, Neil Macdonald writes

Employees of the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver trim leaves from pot plants, harvesting the plant's buds. Marijuana sales became legal and regulated in the state, as of Jan. 1. (Associated Press)

Thirty-five years ago, I would have predicted without hesitation that Canada would decriminalize, and probably legalize marijuana, long before the Americans ever would.

It was just a natural assumption we all made during the '70s and '80s.

Boy, did we ever get that one wrong.

Back then, most Canadians I knew considered themselves more, shall we say, evolved than Americans on such issues.

Certainly, my generation laughed at our parents' notions about cannabis — the ''reefer madness" sort of thing peddled by the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Pretty much everyone my age had tried marijuana, and while most of us didn't know anyone who'd progressed from pot to heroin (or to anything else, for that matter), just about all of us knew families that had been devastated by alcohol, the drug of choice for the previous generation.

By 1972, a Canadian government commission of inquiry (headed by law dean Gerald Le Dain) had recommended the decriminalization of cannabis.

At social gatherings in Canada, you'd sometimes see authority figures, perhaps an off-duty cop, taking an occasional toke. Even our Conservatives were sort of liberal in those days.

To Washington's displeasure, Prime Minister Joe Clark, during his very short tenure as a Progressive Conservative prime minister, included a promise to decriminalize marijuana in the 1979 speech from the throne.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML, held a victory party that year in Ottawa, which I have vague memories of covering as a young reporter. (I seem to recall bowls of dried banana chips on every table to help with the munchies.)

It was, in retrospect, a pleasantly permissive time.

Popular vote

Now, 35 years later, attitudes in Canada and America seem to have switched.

As much as Canadians might find the idea preposterous, Canada in many ways has become the more conservative place.

In a few decades, U.S. governments have gone from prohibitionist and even bullying to outright tolerant on the question of cannabis.

The state of Colorado, mocked by the creators South Park for its conservatism, has legalized, not just decriminalized, pot. So has the state of Washington. Both did so by popular vote.

A party goer at the the pro-marijuana rally Hempfest in Seattle last fall. Tens of thousands attend the annual rally but organizers wonder if it may become irrelevant now that pot is legal in the state. (Associated Press)

Alaska and Oregon will let their citizens vote on legalization this year, while California and five other states are expected to do the same in 2016.

Today, more than 100 million Americans, almost a third of the population, live in jurisdictions where possession of pot is either legal, or a piffling offence, the equivalent of a parking infraction.

The current president, recognizing that the times are a-changing, seems content to take Bob Dylan's advice and just stay out of the way.

"As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life," the president told the New Yorker in a recent interview.

"I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

Crossing party lines

Those remarks haven't been terribly controversial. Republicans might not like Obama, but they are also strong on states' rights, and know that support for decriminalization crosses party lines.

Libertarian conservatives, such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party favourite and presidential aspirant, have always advocated decriminalization.

True, the relaxation of state cannabis laws here has created some weird conundrums; a foreigner (like a vacationing Rob Ford, for example) can be turned away at the U.S. border for admitting any intention of participating in an act that is now perfectly legal in two states.

Further, banks here are still prohibited from accepting the proceeds of drug profits, even if that revenue derives from legal sales.

But the Obama administration says it is working on a legal fix for that; it would much prefer the growing marijuana industry's cash flow be orderly and traceable. (Speaking of which: marijuana sales are being taxed at 21 per cent in Denver, 14 per cent higher than the sales tax on most goods, with the revenues earmarked for building schools.)

Also, Obama has directed national law enforcement agencies to defer to state laws where cannabis is concerned, saying the feds have more important issues to contend with.

Canada, you may have noticed, seems to be going in the other direction.

Point of attack

Opinion polls in Canada and here in the U.S. garner nearly identical responses when it comes to marijuana — nearly 60 per cent of people favour legalization, with even more supporting decriminalization.

That's what's driving legal changes here.

But Canada's law-and-order government appears to disagree with the majority of its citizens.

As I explain to incredulous American acquaintances, even simple possession of marijuana remains a crime in every Canadian province. A pot possession conviction can leave you with a criminal record in Canada, and our police generally enforce the law.

In 2011, the last year for which I can find statistics, nearly 80,000 cannabis-related charges were laid, and Canadian authorities spend half a billion dollars a year enforcing pot laws.

This is of some concern to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who has spoken out in favour of legalization. As far as I can tell, he basically agrees with Barack Obama's position on pot.

Thirty-five years ago, Justin Trudeau's view would have been largely unremarkable in Canada, part of the give-and-take around an emerging social issue.

Nowadays, though, it is apparently political attack material.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he has only smoked pot a couple of times in his life, doesn't condone it, but doesn't want its use to be a criminal offence. (Canadian Press)

According to a party strategy document leaked to the Toronto Star, Trudeau's views on pot figure heavily in Conservative plans to paint him as a menace to Canada's stability, and perhaps even to the health of young children.

They are apparently even thinking of distributing rolling papers imprinted with Trudeau's likeness and the Liberal Party logo at the upcoming Liberal convention.

It's hard to imagine such a plan working here. As much as some Republicans might want to paint Barack Obama as a terrorist-loving socialist enemy of freedom, rolling papers with his face on them would be a joke, and everybody knows it.

Here in the U.S., the political conversation feels, in a sense, like the one Canadians were having decades ago. Not just about pot, but environmental rules, gay rights and, in many states, the effort to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate.

When I arrived here 11 years ago, I believed I came from a more progressive place. I'm a lot less smug now.


  • An earlier version of this column said Justin Trudeau was in favour of decriminalizing marijuana. He is actually in favour of legalizing and regulating.
    Feb 14, 2014 2:38 PM ET

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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