On June 28, the Canadian people elected a new federal government. For Canada’s marijuana culture, the election was both exciting and divisive, as pot-people faced off, arguing over which federal party deserved their support.
Canada’s Marijuana Party ran 71 candidates across the country, taking about 35,500 votes, roughly half of their vote total from 2000, their first federal election. One big reason for the drop was that many high-profile Marijuana Party candidates had defected to Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) in the months before the election.
Federal NDP leader, Jack Layton, made an explicit effort to court the pro-pot vote. He appeared on Pot-TV, to tell Cannabis Culture publisher Marc Emery that he supported “a legal environment” for cannabis use and cultivation (CC#47, Canada’s NDP leader on Pot-TV). Layton repeated his statement in a number of other major interviews, calling for “real decriminalization” and criticizing the Liberals’ proposed bill as inadequate and misleading.
In return, Emery did his best to rally Canada’s pot-people away from the Marijuana Party and behind the federal NDP. Emery printed up 80,000 leaflets for national distribution, with Jack Layton’s face next to a pot leaf. The leaflets quoted Layton, and explained that the NDP was the only major party to back truly legal marijuana.
Yet Emery’s leaflet raised the hackles of some NDPers, who felt that using Layton’s picture and the NDP logo made the unauthorized leaflet look like official campaign literature. The NDP press secretary called Emery to complain, and even threatened a lawsuit.
Yet Layton himself put the pamphlet issue to rest, when pot activist Eric Wood spoke to him personally, immediately after Layton had reaffirmed his support for legalization on a MuchMusic live interview. Layton personally told Wood he had “no problem with the cards at all,” and agreed to sign two of them to show his support. The signed leaflets were posted to the Cannabis Culture website forums as proof of Layton’s sincerity, and Emery received no more threats from the NDP.
These kinds of squabbles provided justification for Marijuana Party Leader Marc-Boris St Maurice, who claimed that NDP support for legal pot was not sincere, and that they would do nothing to advance the cannabis issue after the election.
The Marijuana Party is hoping to generate revenue through the election, to support their future efforts. Under new electoral laws passed by outgoing Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, each political party will now receive an annual stipend from the government, at a rate of $1.75 for each vote they received in the last federal election. However, a party must receive 2% of the national vote to qualify.
Although the Marijuana Party national vote total falls below this level, St Maurice says that his party is allying itself with some other smaller parties, to challenge the minimum vote threshold as unconstitutional. If their legal challenge succeeds, then the Marijuana Party would receive about $62,000 from the government each year until the next election.
Liberals and Conservatives
During the election campaign, Canada’s rejuvenated Conservative party seemed to stand a good chance of winning the election and forming the government. This prospect frightened many Canadians, who saw the Conservatives as an extremist, right-wing party with a pro-Bush agenda. Although a small minority of Conservatives have a libertarian bent, their party is staunchly anti-pot.
Unlike NDP Leader Jack Layton, who responds to queries about his past pot use by saying, “I never exhaled,” Conservative Leader Stephen Harper told the media, “I was offered a joint once and I was too drunk.” Liberal leader and Prime Minister Paul Martin has confessed only that his wife once cooked up some hash brownies for them both.
Taking the middle ground is typical of the Liberals, who won the election mostly by playing to a fear of the extremist Conservatives. The Liberals have been in government since 1993, and they have been promising to lighten up on Canada’s pot laws the whole time.
* In 1996 the Liberals revamped the nation’s drug law with the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. At the time, the Liberals claimed that this law would “decriminalize” possession of marijuana. Yet in actuality the new law stepped up the drug war, making it easier for police to lay trafficking charges, drastically expanding police powers of search and seizure, and allowing police to seize homes used for growing pot (CC#6, Welcome to the drug war).
This “fake decriminalization” is the same kind of trick that the Liberals have been trying to pull again, with their proposed “decriminalization” bill that died before the election. The law would have made possession of a small quantity of pot into a ticketing offense, while increasing penalties for growing and sale of cannabis. Critics claim that the bill would actually encourage police to target people for possession, as writing a ticket is far easier than laying formal charges.
Yet on this issue, as on many others, Canadians seem to prefer the Liberals’ middle of the road bungling and misdirection to the Conservatives’ perceived extremism. Conservative MP Randy White exemplifies the type of Conservative that makes most Canadians worried. In interviews during the campaign, White explained that he opposed gay marriage, legal abortion, legal marijuana, and most of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. White even complained to City Hall about the election signs of the Marijuana Party candidate, causing many to be illegally removed.
The Conservatives claim to officially support the Liberals’ decrim bill, albeit with lower possession limits and even stricter penalties for growers. Yet most Canadian pot-people are more afraid of the Conservatives than they are of the Liberals.
Although Canada’s small but growing Green Party didn’t win any seats, they did see a substantial increase in their overall support. In an interview with Cannabis Culture, Green Party leader Jim Harris claimed his party was “ahead of the change curve” on the pot issue, and that Canada’s Greens “have been in favor of legalization for 20 years.”
Pot victory and defeat
Since most western activists supported the NDP, the Marijuana Party lost considerable support even before it entered the election. The NDP, on the other hand, did quite well. Although they had hoped for a bigger breakthrough, the NDP gained five seats for a total of 19. They received over a million new votes and proved that leader Layton’s extra sensitivity to special issues had won a groundswell of support.
The Liberals may have won the election, but they were reduced to a minority government, with less than half of the total seats in Parliament. That leaves the NDP positioned to influence the Liberals and the delicate balance of power.
Will Prime Minister Paul Martin fulfill his election promise and resurrect his party’s fake decriminalization bill? If so, he will likely need support from the NDP to pass it.
Will Layton and his party hold true to their platform promises of pushing for “real decriminalization”? Only time will tell. But with the influx of marijuana activists the NDP received during the election campaign, there is now a growing internal movement within the party to ensure that it stays the true course. This includes the newly formed “NDPot” ? the unofficial anti-prohibitionist wing of the NDP, lead by long-time pot activists like Chuck Beyer, Dana Larsen, Brian Taylor and Tim Meehan.
As his fortunes shift, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin may even be convinced to end the drug war altogether. The day after he regained his throne, police found 83 kilos of cocaine hidden in the pride of his family’s commercial ocean fleet, a steamship named after his wife. Perhaps now that the drug war is hitting home, Martin may be encouraged to support more enlightened drug laws. The ship he saves could be his own.