“Once you’ve called the industry into existence, then you’re not going to stamp it out.”
The adage of any publicity being good publicity was challenged this week by Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay. In an interview with the Kelowna Daily Courier, McKay voiced his displeasure with cannabis legalization, suggesting that he would have pursued decriminalization instead.
“The entire issue was rushed,” he said. “I believe it wasn’t the highest priority for an incoming government. It was the back-of-a-napkin promise that the current prime minister had made.”
He later clarified his position in an interview with CBC, saying, while he has concerns, he would not repeal legalization if he were elected prime minister: “I would not reverse it, but I am very concerned about the impacts on mental health, on children and mental health generally, impaired driving and other … unintended consequences.”
The Conservative party line on cannabis is clear. Only one party member, Scott Reid, voted in support of the Cannabis Act in 2017. Reid was then promptly removed from his position as critic for democratic institutions.
“I was sacked … for the crime of having broken ranks,” he wrote in a lengthy essay he posted to his personal website after that demotion. In the same post, Reid said that as many as a third of his colleagues supported cannabis legalization, but were instructed — from the top down — to vote against C-45.
It is doubtful that one of those conservative pot supporters was Marilyn Gladu. The first to put her name in the race for the CPC leadership in early January, Gladu has made her stance on cannabis well known. While discussing the Cannabis Act in the House of Commons in 2017, she said the legislation “would put marijauna in the hands of children … so little Johnny can put some in the toaster oven and smoke it up.”
She never clarified how a toaster oven could be used as a means to ingest cannabis, but she did follow up that statement several months later with a cannabis poem she read in the house. The final stanza?
“We hope that the Senate will do its true deed,
And keep our great country safe from all the weed.”
Erin O’Toole, considered by many to be MacKay’s main competitor at this point, has also been critical of cannabis, including dismissing its medical potential in 2015, while in the role of Veterans Affairs Minister.
“There’s a number of voices out there suggesting it’s a treatment for PTSD; there’s no clinical support for that,” O’Toole said, while overseeing a department that was spending several million dollars a year to supply veterans with medical cannabis.
O’Toole has also been critical of legalization, saying that recreational cannabis is a public health risk. “Instead of using evidence-based decision making, the Justin Trudeau government has rushed to implement a half-baked election promise. Scientific evidence confirms that marijuana use can cause real, adverse impacts on the developing brain.”
As of yet, neither O’Toole or Gladu have revisited the cannabis file during the leadership race.
Part of a strategy or a mistake?
That likely won’t change anytime soon, says Scott Reid, not the Conservative politician, but the former director of communications to prime minister Paul Martin and current political analyst and principal at Feschuk-Reid.
“This looks flat out like a mistake to me,” he says of MacKay’s comments. “I think that MacKay put his hand over the candle and he feels burned. I doubt that he’ll revisit it and I doubt that other campaigns will be eager to repeat his mistake.”
Though, Reid admits, if one squints a little, they might be able to see some calculation behind MacKay’s comments. “A generous interpretation would be that MacKay has strategically created an ambiguity about his position on this issue in order to signal to some hardcore conservatives that he’s not really comfortable with it.”
Jamie Ellerton, a conservative strategist and a principal at the public relations firm Conaptus Ltd., also does not believe MacKay’s comments were part of a grand strategy. However, Ellerton also says there are many reasons to be critical of the rollout of legalization.
“A lot of people feel like the government stated policy objective of killing the black market and taking cannabis out of the hands of the youth is not something that has been accomplished,” he says.
“As part of this race, both the main candidates are trying to frame their campaign vis a vis opposition to Justin Trudeau and the disappointment that Justin Trudeau is causing. I think the degree to which you see remarks about the botched legalization of cannabis is less in opposition to the issue of cannabis itself and more to what can be defined as yet another straw put on the camel’s back of Justin Trudeau’s failures.”
Ellerton does not expect the issue to be raised again in the context of the leadership race, nor does he believe a conservaitive candidate, if elected prime minister, would roll back legalization.
“I think that any notion that a conservative party future leader is going to reverse the legalization of cannabis is fundamentally out of step with where Canadians are at.”
But, with legislative tools at their disposal, they could change things.
University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston doesn’t believe that’s a priority.
“I guess the question is whether it’s that central to a social conservative agenda and my hunch is that there are more important questions for social conservatives than marijuana legalization,” he says, adding that MacKay’s current focus is appealing to his party, not necessarily a national audience.
“Once you’ve called the industry into existence, then you’re not going to stamp it out,” he says.
“His task, at the moment, is to the win the leadership of the party. And although he is unlikely to be the candidate of social conservatives, I think he wants to keep them off of his back.”
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Written by Sam Riches