PM Plays Pot Politics Perfectly
Mar 9, 2014

PM Plays Pot Politics Perfectly

Whatever else one might be tempted to say about Harper, nobody is going to claim he is not politically savvy. His latest move - considering changing marijuana laws to include a ticketing system - is tactically brilliant.

Consider the context: Justin Trudeau has adopted the brave stance to support marijuana legalization after it became Liberal policy at a the 2012 convention. Since then, the Conservatives have blasted Trudeau relentlessly in talking points and ads, particularly to their base, featuring rather conspiratorial "think of the children!" themes. To the base, it can be a great issue to demagogue on. . However, a lot of people think our laws on pot are overly draconian and more than a bit hypocritical, and this is the group that is going to lend their support to Trudeau. At the same time that Harper can motivate the base for fundraising and get out the vote with the pot issue, he wants to defend the centre flank against those who think some form of legalization is more sensible than what we have now.

It is to that center that Harper has erected a defense. The ticketing proposal (instead of full criminal charges with stiff consequences) is going to be cast as a small loosening of the rules, a sensible move that makes pot offences a but more in line with reality. He can still appeal to the base and blast Trudeau's legalization scheme as harmful to children. At the same time, he can prevent some of those centrist voters from leaving his flock because of the appeal of Trudeau's plan. By narrowing the difference between the two parties, it reduces the potential upside benefit for Trudeau, minimizing the benefits of this positive distinguishing feature for Trudeau. And it lets Harper still be able to cast this as him having the sensible modest plan while Trudeau, in over his head as will surely be said, has the crazy pipe dream plan.

Note that personally I support full legalization and find this loosening to be a silly stop gap measure. There are some arguments it will actually make it worse, that ticketing is so much easier than the criminal charges that it will lead cops to be more active on people smoking pot. Either way, this point here was about the brilliance of the tactics, regardless of your thoughts once the policy itself.

The power of the public discourse:
Accepting my framing, there is also an interesting point about how public debate and opposition parties accepting popular positions can make tangible changes to policy from the governing party. Back in 2012, Harper was toughening pot laws with the mandatory minimum laws. Once the political need to protect against Trudeau arose, it created a pressure to make this very slight liberalizing shift and now we will likely get a real change in policy stemming from an opposition leader making a declaration.

In turn, the pressure on Trudeau to adopt pot legalization arose from within the party at the 2012 convention. I have always believed that dialogue and discussion on the issues in society matters. It is why I write this blog. Here we have an example of precisely how that can pressure first the Trudeau and then Harper to implementing actual changes. Sure, they are not as far as many of us would like, but they are a step in the right direction. 

Harper, in particular, has been more than willing to steal ideas from other parties when they prove popular (such as the minor consumer protections being talked about recently in telecoms or aviations, long championed by the NDP). This can be annoying for parties in the sense that they lose a distinguishing advantage, a competitive edge, as it were, on a popular issue. But in the large sense of trying to influence government to enact good laws, it is a genuine win. That can, and must, stand for something.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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sassy said...

That would be Harper - moving towards the right thing for the wrong reason. I put my money on him backtracking if for some reason he no longer feels his kingdom is threatened.

Ryan Spinney said...

There is no evidence that pot will move any significate amount of votes, either way. Even most chronic pot smokers I know don't worry about the cops.

bazie said...

It's probably not the deciding factor for most people, but then most things in politics aren't the deciding factor. But it can still shift the needle, help to bolster or supress enthusiasm, give people one more reason on a heap of others, etc. Harper, at least, thinks its an issue that can move the needle, which is why he has made it the focus of so many anti-Trudeau ads after first making the rules harder based in mandatory minimums and now making them less hard. That's a political calculation, and even if its only a small one, its a good one.

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