Drugs, Drugs, Drugs. Which are good, which are bad?
There are many logistical hurdles to overcome, but I tend to think one of the many alcohol and cigarette distribution systems we use could be adapted to marijuana. Once a mechanism is settled on and border issues with the Americans are worked out, the benefits are obvious.
Those hippies at the Fraser Institute peg it as a $7 billion cash crop which would generate $2 billion a year in tax revenue. Those stoners in the Senate like the idea because it would deal a financial blow to organized crime by bringing the economy above-ground. Anyone watching Boardwalk Empire knows what happens when you try to enforce an unenforceable prohibition.
But those are the debate arguments, and the political arguments are a bit more complex. After all, as carbon taxes and the HST have taught us, sound policy doesn't always make for sound politics.
It's easy to point to a poll and say Canadians are onside with Liberal members on this issue, but it's not as simple as that. There are at least 6 things the Liberals need to mull over before lighting up on this policy.
1. Strength of Support: Maybe people think pot should be legalized, but do they feel strong enough about the issue to vote for a party because of their stand? The "stoned slacker" vote is a lot harder to mobilize than the "mothers worried about their kids smoking pot" vote.
2. The Liberal Coalition: It's good to be behind an idea voters like, but it also matters which voters like it. Will this win the Liberals any votes from New Democrats or libertarian conservatives? Will it be enough to get young people to vote for them? Will it win them Vancouver? Will it scare off longtime Liberals?
3. The Big Picture: How does this policy fit into the key themes of the next Liberal platform? Does it play to a larger narrative about the Liberals being bold...or being soft on crime...or being a party with new ideas...or being a joke? There are a lot of ways this can be spun.
There's also the the 2 billion in budget flexibility this policy would open up. A lot of voters may not feel a legalized pot policy impacts them personally, but if it leads to a 2 billion dollar tax break? That's something they'd be stoked about.
4. A sound byte campaign: I have no doubt that even Michael Ignatieff could best Stephen Harper in an hour-long debate on marijuana legalization. But during elections, policies are all about the 10 second elevator pitch. The Conservatives will say the Liberals are soft on crime. They'll say they've promised tax breaks for kids sports while the Liberals offer kids a joint. I can guarantee you the party that brought us Oily the Splotch is thinking up clever ad campaigns as we speak.
Is the Liberal pitch as compelling? I'm not saying it can't be, but if it isn't this policy could become an albatross.
5. Stickiness: The knock on the Liberals in past campaigns is that their policies have seemed bland - a billion for this and a National Strategy for that. Pot legalization would make Canadians take notice and talk - something a third party can't take for granted.
The flip side is that this is such an attention grabbing policy it might detract from the rest of the Liberal platform. Do you want to make a policy voters are this divided on your flagship platform plank ahead of, say, a pharmacare program that would have more widespread popularity?
6. Fundraising: Rob Silver talked about the Liberals using this policy as a fundraising tool on Power & Politics last week. After all, Liberal members clearly support it - I know I'd probably give them some dough if they put it in the platform and asked for cash to air commercials in support of it on Much Music at 2 am.
Beyond that, this would be a case of the Liberal Party doing something because their members asked them to. The impact of this in terms of engaging existing members and recruiting future ones should not be discounted. Every policy wonk in Canada would take this as a sign it's worth their time to go to the next Liberal policy convention.
I don't have the answers to all these questions, but it underscores just how big an issue this is. It's one that requires a lot of thought before it finds its way into the party platform.
The good news is, by endorsing the policy overwhelmingly this weekend, Liberals have guaranteed that every leadership candidate is going to need to take a position on pot legalization. Before they do, candidates will need to think long and hard about the questions discussed above, as well as a 7th - will supporting this policy increase my chances of winning the leadership race?