It’s time for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to start treating the prohibition of marijuana and other drugs as a serious political issue.
The Leader of the Official Opposition, who at first said that legalizing marijuana would create problems with our American neighbours, in September suggested the Liberal Party will reintroduce legislation to decriminalization possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Conservatives MPs attacked Ignatieff in the House of Commons a few days later, and the Liberal leader has been quiet about the issue ever since.
When I asked the Liberals for a comment a few months ago, they told me that Ignatieff would not be making an official statement, but that I could ask him a question in person at one of his “Open mike” townhall meetings.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch up with Iggy myself – but luckily, at his meet-up at a Richmond, B.C. secondary school in November, a student asked him what he thought about Proposition 19, the California ballot initiative to legalize pot that narrowly failed in 2010.
Here’s how Ignatieff responded (Listen to the MP3 – starts at 16:02):
This is marijuana isn’t it? (Laughter) I had a kind of idea that question might come up, I don’t know why.
Look, I won’t – Let me be serious for just a second. I don’t want any young person’s life ruined for being arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. I don’t want your life to be – I don’t want you to get a criminal record for that. And if we have to make changes to the criminal law to make that possible I will do so.
But I’d like us to be thinking about something else than marijuana to be frank. It’s not a priority.
I don’t want your life to be ruined by an arrest and a criminal record but boy I’d like you to be thinking about something other than marijuana, like getting a great university degree, getting a great job when you’re out. I just think that the focus on marijuana gets us into the wrong sense of priorities.
Our priorities ought to be, you know, living a good life, getting a good education, helping our parents, getting a good job, having a good family; and sometimes we get focused on the marijuana issue and I think we miss what our real priorities ought to be.
A few days ago in Belleville, Ontario, Ignatieff was again asked about marijuana. A local paper described the interaction:
A lighter moment came in the night when a young man asked Ignatieff his views on decriminalizing marijuana. The man noted the government could receive taxes on marijuana which, in turn, would help the country’s economy.
Though the question generated laughs from both Ignatieff and the crowd, the Liberal Leader said he doesn’t want to see young people’s lives destroyed by convictions for possession of small amounts of the drug.
However, he said, he is also a father and he does have a tough view on drug use.
“I don’t see it,” he stated bluntly.
It’s great that Ignatieff is not backing down from his comments on decriminalization; the imprisonment of thousands of non-violent Canadians is a terrible consequence of the drug war – but it is not the only consequence.
Like the prohibition of alcohol some years ago, the prohibition of marijuana and other drugs leads directly to the creation of organized crime and gang activity. As Ignatieff and the Liberals join their Conservative counterparts in criminalizing the production and distribution of drugs, the gangs who thrive on the illegal market grow richer and stronger.
Just look at Mexico, where despite the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, the drug war rages out of control, killing more people than the war in Afghanistan – with the number of dead innocent civilians up by 172% in the last 12 months.
Ignatieff should also recognize that thousands of Canadians suffering from debilitating diseases who use cannabis as medicine do see the issue as a priority. Many of these legal users have been left without their licences due to Health Canada delays, leading to raids, property damage, and other hardships.
In a political climate where the Conservatives are pushing mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana offences and getting prepared to load-up expensive new prisons with potheads, I’m thankful the Liberals are at least moving quietly in the opposite direction. It seems to me, however, that by attempting to trivialize the marijuana issue, Ignatieff is missing a great opportunity to really stand up and differentiate himself from Stephen Harper, as well as do the right thing.