Monday, January 23, 2012

Drugs, Drugs, Drugs. Which are good, which are bad?

The marijuana legalization policy, which passed at last weekend's Liberal convention, has been generating a fair amount of media buzz this past week. The strongest arguments in favour of it come, somewhat surprisingly, from this National Post editorial and Toronto Sun column, while this Globe article raises some legitimate questions about the feasibility of legalization.

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?

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  • I think we need to frame this debate now, before the Conservatives do. Instead of making fun of it like Rae did - which will play right into Tory commercials of our next leader looking high - we need to be serious about the issue and talk about a policy of "marijuana regulation" and "crime control". It can be done, but it needs to be done now and seriously.

    By Blogger Jason Cherniak, at 9:24 a.m.  

  • Jason, Dan - who do you suppose is the "we" that should be doing this? Should the initiative come from the LO? The Board? The Policy committee?

    By Anonymous Adrian, at 10:35 a.m.  

  • The leadership race does complicate things a bit. After all, if Rae embraces this policy, what happens when leadership contenders come out against it?

    Then again, maybe now is the perfect time to run with it and have Rae define the issue, like Jason said. After all, if Canadians don't buy what we're selling, the next leader can drop it before the campaign.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 11:09 a.m.  

  • Great post. In all of my arguments I've said the same as Jason. It needs to be a messaging of: tax revenues and hurting criminal enterprise. Throw in reduced costs for the 3 step talking point process.

    But what we also need is a strategy for dealing with the NDP, because it is entirely possible that this will be something they choose to adopt in some form as well, especially if the poll support seems good.

    The final element, in my view, is that just as Jason wants to focus on certain elements of messaging, I think we actually need to become very dismissive of many of the questions with absolutely no backing that are going to be asked. Otherwise we get into what I call the 'intelligent design' scenario. Things that are completely disproven and have no support become a running parallel narrative: doesn't pot cause schizophrenia? doesn't it led to heroin and cocaine use? etc. If we don't have the same short answer, "there is no evidence to support that, next question" every single time it's asked, it means that those words, and others, will find their way into every newspaper and TV report. Even if it's in a dismissive way, the words will still be there. And that's something we need to avoid.

    By Anonymous Luke, at 11:25 a.m.  

  • 1) It would starve the Conservatives tough on crime approach of oxygen.

    2) It would create divisions in the Conservative ranks, most notably between social conservatives and libertarians.

    3) The public prefers legalization to the status quo by margin of 2 to 1.

    4) The arguments against legalization are of a very poor quality of indeed. Now, granted generally this does not matter that much in politics. The Republicans fact free approach seems amble proof of that. The media's cult of balance, and the rapidity of the news cycle means that by the time the talking points have been debunked the issue is no longer newsworthy. If one of the major parties shows a firm commitment to Marijuana legalization, things will be different though. The population has a better grasp of this issue than it does most other issues and even now the issue generates a ton of discussion amongst political junkies and the wider public alike. Last but not least,the public's interest is not going to wane. Political parties will be dealing with this issue from the moment one of the major parties shows a serious commitment to it to the moment the final ballot is cast. All this means that there will be a political consequences to touting the same refer madness myths on a regular basis. Process sometimes matter. If your talking points are being smashed to bits in editorial pages of the country's papers for months if not years years on end and comedians and the wider public alike are turning them into the punch line to various jokes, you are going to suffer at the polls.

    By Blogger Koby, at 3:17 p.m.  

  • "there is no evidence to support that, next question"

    I disagree with you on this point. The Liberals have no choice but to tackle these issues in a way the public understands. The liberals strategy of claiming that the experts only gets some so far.

    Fear not. It is easy to blow massive holes in the main refer myths in a line or two.

    Potent Point

    1) Saying that potent pot is reason for keeping marijuana illegal is akin to saying that alcohol should be banned because gin has higher alcohol content than beer. It makes no sense.

    2) If today's marijuana is truly different in kind from "dads marijuana", would it be ok to legalize "dad's marijuana", i.e., low potency pot?


    There is no causation without correlation. There are has been astronomical increase in the number of pot smokers since the 1950s and no increase in the rate of schizophrenia whatsoever.

    Gateway drug

    Every time someone goes to buy marijuana they come into contact with criminal elements with access to other hard drugs. This is your gateway. When Holland legalized consumption and made it available in stores, heroin and cocaine use went down.

    By Blogger Koby, at 3:19 p.m.  

  • Of course it is way to logical.
    The $2 Billion may be light, consider tourism growth from USA, no more spring break in Mexico, its going to be Whistler. Also the lost productivity of turning our youth into criminals has to be Billions a year.

    By Blogger Steve, at 3:38 p.m.  

  • Luke, how to frame the health objections. First never mention health. Marijuana is a product we discourage people from using, it is not safe, it is not part of a healthy lifestyle. However, our current policy has outcomes far far worse than legalization. Its proven that legalization, reduces underage usage, delays first contact, and decreases crime. So when you add the moral benefits of harm reduction with the fiscal benefits of adding $4 to $5 Billion(make the cons do the math, just like they want us to do the health benefits) to the treasury its really a sound policy.

    By Blogger Steve, at 3:44 p.m.  

  • Potent pot is a total red herring, anyone who grew up in the 70's mostly smoked hash and hash oil, very potent, likely more than todays plants.

    By Blogger Steve, at 3:46 p.m.  

  • Putting on my devil's advocate hat, I see a couple of issues with pot legalization:
    1) The border issue is being downplayed. The US will potentially go ballistic. The US will threaten, and possibly follow thru, to slow border traffic to a crawl for searches for the demon weed. This would not be good for anyone.
    2) Criminal activity will not decrease, it will merely shift. So expect to see an increase in coke, meth, etc should pot be legalized. Also, there's a potential for increased gang violence as gangs who previously trafficked in pot muscle in on other gang's turf re these other drugs.

    Having said that, I totally believe that the country would be a less violent place if weed was the drug of choice instead of alcohol. Rather than the 2 Stanley Cup riots we had here in Vancouver, we'd have had the 2 Stanley Cup munchies fests. Men predisposed to violence against women wouldn't come home after a night of drinking and smack their SOs around, they'd come home after a night of toking and fall asleep on the couch. Etc, etc.

    My 2 cents.

    By Anonymous Jim R, at 4:22 p.m.  

  • One question I have. Is there currently a roadside test that can be administered to quantify pot impairment? Right now, for alcohol, you have an impairment charge, which is mostly based on observation and a .08 charge which is based results of a roadside test that will stand up in court.

    To me, legalizing pot without roadside testing procedure that will stand up in court would be a big concern.

    By Anonymous Darren, at 4:37 p.m.  

  • First, there is a huge practical obstacle to legalizing marijuana in terms of how the US will respond. Almost certainly there will be calls for the US to tighten its borders with Canada, if we legalize marijuana. Any imagined economic gains need to be considered in that light.

    Second, whoever said there is 2-1 support misread the latest poll completely (See here: ).

    40% of Canadians support legalization. 26% are only willing to go as far as decriminalization. Taking the legalization stance is only a political winner for the Liberals IF the NDP doesn't follow suit. Remember, the key to Harper's success is not winning the support of a majority of Canadians, but rather, keeping 40% of us happy.

    Third, as a practical matter, the "we can tax it" argument is the stupidest argument for anything in the history of mankind. The reality is that if you're the government you can tax whatever the hell you want.

    The reality is that it is politically easy to tax marijuana, because people like sin taxes. But there's a flipside to that argument. People are willing to accept sin taxes precisely because they think marijuana use is a harm (though more on the level of already legal substances). This enables the other side to argue that any revenue gains will be offset by increased costs to the healthcare system.*

    *Incidentally, healthcare costs are my second-least favourite argument for anything. Healthy living costs taxpayers MORE not less. Whether I die of lung cancer at 65 or prostate cancer at 80, the cost to taxpayers is roughly the same. However, by living longer I collect CPP for 15 years, and incur other costs, while contributing nothing to revenues (assuming I am retired).

    I support marijuana legalization, and think it is a good policy. However, there are some clear challenges to both its implementation and the political salesmanship it requires.

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 9:01 p.m.  

  • "a $7 billion cash crop"

    The Liberal Party's ties to organized crime may be strong enough to reassure them that the criminal underworld will take a $7 Billion hit to their revenues without responding in any way, but I'm not sure ordinary Canadians are quite that stupid.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:56 p.m.  

  • Another thought - there seems to be an implicit assumption that Harper will challenge a push for legalization with drug war-style rhetoric. But as we know, the status quo in Canada is rather different, and more defensible.

    Though marijuana is not decriminalized very few users are arrested, rather the main targets of police action are grow-ops (and the kinds of people that operate grow-ops would probably produce other drugs if legalization took place). Canada's marijuana prices tell that story pretty persuasively.

    An ounce of high end weed, according to (obviously it is hard to find a reliable source for weed prices) costs...

    $550 in New York
    $300 in Vancouver
    $283.50 in Amsterdam
    $240 in Toronto
    $220 in Montreal

    And there may be ways to tax marijuana-use indirectly (a bong and rolling paper tax? A surcharge for people ordering pizza after 1 am?).

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 4:08 a.m.  

  • Guarantee in legislation that every tax dollar from it would go into mass transit... health care and it's really not enough for everyone to notice... transit... absolutely everybody benefits even people that don't take transit.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:38 p.m.  

  • Dudes, this policy kicks ass.

    It should be part of our campaign theme:

    Make Canada the Relaxiest Country in the World by 2020

    And here's the upshot to revenues generated by pot:

    Every cent of tax revenues goes to fund our Education Passport. Everyone gets to go to university thanks to weed.

    Maybe we forget stuff, we'll say, but the stuff we forgot took way more education to know.

    By Anonymous ReallyintoRae, at 8:05 a.m.  

  • How long before someone points out that legalization has worked out so well in the Netherlands that they've made it illegal to sell pot to tourists. Goes to show how wonderful life is when pot is legalized.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:25 a.m.  

  • Steve, very fair points about how certain negatives need to be addressed, but with a four year wait for the next election, we can only afford so much time on dispelling certain ideas that really are simple exercises in logic--- alcohol analogy for potency being one of them. But after that i still think we need to be targeting the economic benefits, especially if there's still deficits,

    The only real obstacle would be about international trade, both cross-border and container exports. But that is a relatively minor obstacle.

    The idea that we shouldn't legalize because it will make organized crime angry is priceless. Far better we keep giving them billions of dollars a year, makes perfect sense...

    By Anonymous Luke, at 12:11 p.m.  

  • Overly complex post, Dan. It's simple:

    You either support some form of decriminalization or legalization, or you support some form of organized crime.

    Admit how much you wish Ignatieff had declared that in a debate against Harper...

    By Anonymous JBV, at 3:24 p.m.  

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