Of all the issues to be raised during the 2015 Canadian election, it is marijuana legalization that has garnered the most global attention and acclaim. Justin Trudeau’s pledge to legalize recreational use of the drug has, in the eyes of many in the international community, cemented Canada’s image as a world leader in progressive politics. However, as many countries seem primed to follow suit in moving past an era of failed prohibition, they shouldn’t exactly look to Canada as a guide on how to implement legalization.
After throwing their support behind Trudeau and his outspoken commitment to modernize Canadian drug policy, many voters have been left disappointed by his administration’s drawn-out and confusing implementation of cannabis legalization. It was only this past April, nearly 19 months after he assumed office, that Trudeau’s Liberal party introduced legislation intended to legalize marijuana by July of 2018. In the meantime, tens of thousands of Canadians continue to be arrested for pot-related crimes, a result of a staunch unwillingness by Trudeau’s government to decriminalize the drug prior to legalization.
The Prime Minister isn’t just idly allowing these prosecutions to continue to take place, he is actively encouraging them. A legalization process led by Bill Blair of all people, former Toronto Police Chief who during his tenure oversaw a tougher crackdown on marijuana use, has controversially included the public instructing of municipal law enforcement around the country to continue aggressive pot shop raids. One can’t help but be confused by the mixed messaging of a Liberal government that appears to be fine with saddling thousands of Canadians with criminal records for something they promised to immediately legalize.
Furthermore, the legalization plan itself has been revealed to be bizarrely punitive. The bill introduced last April is in many ways antithetical to the concept of decriminalization, it grants law enforcement vast power to arbitrarily enforce breath tests, it introduces an absurdly draconian penalty for selling the drug to a minor, and it imposes limits on the number of plants one can grow in their own home. This so-called “partial” legalization doesn’t go far enough in addressing the failures of criminalization, which has left many concerned.
In an unsuccessful attempt to quell these concerns, Trudeau recently held a town hall wherein he tried to further clarify certain elements of his government’s legalization process. The most noteworthy moment of the night was when he was questioned on whether or not he’d consider pardoning individuals who have been previously charged with possession. Trudeau somehow managed to explicitly acknowledge the unfair disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished in dealing with possession charges while also refusing to provide a definitive answer about pardoning those who have been victims to this disparity.
Part of this paradoxical mindset has much to do with the way Trudeau has framed the issue of legalization since the campaign cycle. He’s consistently emphasized that his primary intentions are to, “protect children” and “remove the criminal elements” that profit from prohibition. No, not the fact that the War on Drugs in general has been an expensive, immoral campaign which has perpetuated systemic racism and needlessly afflicted the livelihoods of countless people, Trudeau has instead decided to use legalization to further demonize marijuana and its users. By approaching legalization from a “public safety” position, Trudeau can absolve himself of having to address the moral failings of the criminal justice system with real solutions, while still claiming to be a progressive voice. Any unjust prosecutions that take place under his watch are effectively excused because they took place before legalization.
Trudeau’s inability to truly challenge these institutions exposes his motivations for legalization as more political than ideological. His government’s approach to the issue has been in many ways disappointing, and shouldn’t serve as an example of how genuinely progressive countries should go about legalization. As the international community inevitably leaves behind marijuana criminalization, it should learn from the mistakes of the Trudeau government and look to avoid them.