Does smoking marijuana hurt political careers? That may seem settled in the U.S., as demonstrated by this light-hearted list from as long ago as 2008 in the New York Times: “Some Inhaled. Some Didn’t. One Ate It With Beans.”
President Barack Obama got his drug use out front and out of the way in his autobiography – which was a smart tactic. Some who knew Obama in his youth think he may have exaggerated that story in a calculated effort to up his street credibility. (Indeed, he seems to have had more trouble with quitting smoking than with illegal drugs.)
According to the NYT article cited above, when asked about using pot by New York magazine in 2001, then-candidate Michael Bloomberg answered: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” (Remarks Mayor Bloomberg came to regret after they were repeated in an ad that favored legalization, though he says they sprang from his own cannot-tell-a-lie philosophy.)
At this point, there seems to be no real penalty for so-called youthful indiscretion. But how about recent use by elected officials? Does that matter more?
August can be a slow news month, which may explain how and why that topic has been bouncing around here in Canada. It began when the new Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau, admitted this:
“We had a few good friends over for a dinner party, our kids were at their grandmother’s for the night, and one of our friends lit a joint and passed it around. I had a puff,” he told the Huffington Post website.
According to press accounts, that took place three years ago. Trudeau is the charismatic son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He was elected to his own seat in parliament in 2008. Trudeau says he’s used pot maybe 5-6 times in his life.
With a much touted tough-on-crime posture, the ruling Conservative Party hoped this event would offer more proof the 41-year-old Trudeau lacks the maturity and judgement expected in anyone hoping to defeat current Prime Minister Stephen Harper for Canada’s top job.
So a number of conservative figures heaped scorn on the admission. Current Minister of Justice and Attorney General Peter Mackay called Trudeau’s action illegal, which prompted counter-criticism from a law professor who says Mackay should know better. The point being it’s illegal to grow, traffic and possess marijuana in Canada, but it’s not illegal to smoke it, according to this account from the Huffington Post:
University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran has written to the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society asking that they investigate MacKay, a former provincial Crown prosecutor and, as the current Attorney General of Canada, the person charged with enforcing the rules of the land, for unprofessional conduct as a lawyer.
A small rush to confess followed from other Canadian political figures, including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (who added she’s not indulged in 35 years) and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who said: “Oh, yeah. I’ve smoked a lot of it.” (Ford, it should be noted, has his own set of problems relating to alleged drug use.)
Judging by the public reaction though, this issue does not register with average voters in a significant way. Sure, some feel lawmakers have an even greater responsibility to uphold the law. But others say this proves Trudeau is more in touch with modern times and more willing to be open in discussing controversial topics. A number of political observers call it a calculated tactic to woo voters who would prefer more transparent leadership.
Will it work? It may, because in the greater scheme of things, this seems so very minor, according to this CBC article on the loosening of some taboos:
“It’s a little bit like going 120 [kph] on the highway. Almost everybody drives 120 on the highway. That’s against the law as well,” said Jaime Watt, executive chairman of Navigator, a political communications firm.
(Official upper speed limits in Canada tend to be no higher than 100 kph, or about 60 mph. 120 kph is about 75 mph. Driving 100 kph on Canadian freeways will get you passed by most other cars. Some of those drivers will be angry at anyone moving that slowly.)
As reported by the CBC, Trudeau told a crowd at a recent Liberal Party event in PEI the ensuing debate “blew his mind”
“Only in Stephen Harper’s Canada could people actually argue that being honest was a calculated risk,” said Trudeau. He said he didn’t talk about his past marijuana use because he wants to disclose “every little last detail, the public sphere is not supposed to be Oprah,” but rather because of the position he backs when it comes to legalization.
Both the U.S. and Canada seem muddled on the question of marijuana use. In the U.S. this past week, the Justice Department made headlines by announcing the feds would not sue to block laws in 20 US states (plus the District of Columbia) that permit marijuana use. As reported in the New York Times:
Marijuana advocates praised the decision as a potentially historic shift in the federal government’s attitude toward a drug it once viewed as a menace to public health. By allowing states to legalize and regulate marijuana, advocates said, the federal government could reduce jail populations and legal backlogs, create thousands of jobs, and replenish state coffers with marijuana taxes.
I could close by asking if readers think marijuana should be de-criminalized or legalized. Or why that topic isn’t the focus of the same sort of push seen for gay marriage in recent years.
But society appears tired of the marijuana fight – happier to drift toward wide-spread indifference. Sort of the “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than get permission” principle.
Or do you disagree? Is marijuana an issue that still resonates with voters?