While most Americans are keeping a close eye on the November 4 elections here, Canadians will also be heading to the polls in a national election later this month. Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper hopes to see his minority government become a majority one, while the opposition Liberals and New Democratic Party (NDP) dream of winning enough parliamentary seats to form a governing alliance, and the third-tier Green Party hopes to actually win some seats.
Conservative Party leaflet demonizing drug users
Recent Canadian opinion polls
consistently show the Tories pulling down nearly 40% of the popular vote, the Liberals at around 25%, the NDP at around 18%, the Greens at about 9%, and the Bloc Québécois at about 8%. How that will translate into parliamentary seats remains to be seen, but the Conservatives appear poised to retain control of the federal government. The good news is that they aren't doing it on the basis of their drug policies.
While earlier in this decade, Canada had been a hot-bed of drug reform, that issue is playing little role in this election, and to the degree that it has been part of the campaign, it has been largely negative. The formerly governing Liberals, who only a few years ago were calling for marijuana decriminalization, have retreated into silence and the Conservatives have been sparing in trying to advance their prohibitionist agenda during the campaign, although they have launched some broadsides at Insite, the Vancouver safe injection site, and they have run at least one series of campaign ads calling for the rounding up of "junkies" for treatment or imprisonment.
The NDP, which has officially embraced marijuana regulation in the past, no longer mentions it on its campaign web site issues page, but the Green Party calls openly for marijuana legalization and a harm reduction approach to other drugs. (Green Party leader Elizabeth May has publicly apologized for not having smoked pot.)
"Drug policy hasn't played much of a role in the campaign," said Eugene Oscapella, head of the Ottawa-based Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, noting that, as in the US, the state of the economy is overshadowing all other issues. "Harper has railed about getting tough on young offenders, but there really hasn't been a lot of talk about drug policy."
But a convincing Conservative victory could herald a renewed push to get tough on drug offenses, Oscapella said. "They introduced a bill to toughen up drug penalties, including some mandatory minimum sentences, and if they win a majority, they will go ahead full steam with that. The Tories aren't into sensible drug policy; they're into punishment," he said.
Where drug policy most prominently reared its head this campaign season was in the imbroglio over NDP Vancouver area former candidates Dana Larsen and Kirk Tousaw. Both are long-time prominent marijuana or drug law reform activists, both have associations with Marc Emery and the BC Marijuana Party, both are members of the NDP's anti-prohibitionist wing, and both were forced to resign last month as candidates after Youtube videos of past drug use surfaced. Larsen was also lambasted for his part ownership of a shop that sold various seeds, including those for coca plants.
Tousaw declined to comment on the affair until after the election, but Larsen, a former editor of Cannabis Culture magazine, was less reticent. He was not bitter, he said.
"My resignation was a strategic political decision in consultation with the party," said Larsen. "I could see how things were going -- continuing my candidacy would make it more difficult for the NDP in the election. I'm a former leader of the BC Marijuana Party, I've smoked pot all my life, and I've been quite open about it, but I'm not sure my friends in the NDP were aware of all the things I've done over my career. I didn't want to see [NDP leader] Jack Layton have to spend his time defending a candidate who sold 'cocaine plants' or who apparently drove while smoking pot," he explained.
"My store sold coca seeds, and while we know that the coca plant has a long history of beneficial traditional use that goes back thousands of years, I don't know that the public is ready for a candidate who sold 'cocaine plants.' If I stayed in, I would end up hurting more than helping the NDP," Larsen said.
Larsen said he had learned a lesson in hardball politics. "I should have released all of that stuff to the media on a busy news day when I first became a candidate," he said. "By the time the election came around, nobody would have cared. But it was all released the same day by my opponents. I got outmaneuvered," he observed.
"I remain a loyal member of the NDP; it is by far the best political option for the drug reform movement in Canada," said Larsen. "The NDP has a platform of taxing and regulating marijuana and ending the war on drugs. A lot of people in the drug reform and marijuana community are all excited thinking the NDP did me wrong, but I don't feel that's the case at all. If they really support drug reform, they should stick with the NDP, or work with another party that also supports it."
Although the Greens are now officially more progressive on drug policy issues, the NDP remains the best place for drug reformers, Larsen argued. "While the Greens have a great marijuana policy, and that might help push other parties to adopt those ideas, the Greens are not going to elect anybody," said Larsen. "Will the Greens do a better job than [NDP Vancouver East MP and ardent drug reformer] Libby Davies? Part of being an MP is being a member of a party team."
And, he said, there was a silver lining. "This has certainly heightened my profile," he laughed. "I got a lot of support and almost no negative comments. I'll continue to go to NDP conventions, and now people will recognize who I am."
"I can understand the NDP's concern over Dana Larsen," said Oscapella. "Driving while smoking pot and taking hits of LSD and posting that stuff on Youtube doesn't look good, and the NDP would have found itself in the position of having to make clear it doesn't support drug use, just sensible drug policies. It would take a lot of explaining to undo the potential damage."
Still, said Oscapella, the NDP remains a good bet for people interested in drug reform. "I don't think at all they're moving away from sensible drug policies," he said. "While the optics of getting elected may make them want to make this low-profile, they have too many good people like Libby Davies who are very good on drug reform. If you raise the drug reform flag during an election, you risk getting shot at."
Since the Conservatives came to power, the politics of marijuana and drug reform has gone in the wrong direction, said Oscapella. "The Conservatives have gone absolutely backwards on marijuana. They want nothing to do with any liberalization, but they do want to increase penalties on what they call major criminals, including some marijuana offenders," he noted.
Canadian Parliament, Ottawa (courtesy Library of Parliament)
"The Greens' drug policy is the most open and sensible of any of the parties, but the NDP is also actually pretty good," said Oscapella. "The Greens are up front about it; they say legalize it, embrace harm reduction for other drugs, and move toward a regulatory model."
Both the Greens and the NDP have performed better on drug policy than the Liberals, said Oscapella. "The Liberals a few years ago were talking about decriminalization, but then they backed away from that and said they would just reduce penalties, perhaps because of political pressure from Washington," said Oscapella. "But that never passed, and I haven't heard a peep out of the Liberals about that since."
Though mostly under the radar, drug war politics did make it into some electioneering pamphlets produced by the Harper campaign and mailed to voters by Conservative candidates around the country, reading "Junkies and pushers don't belong near children and families. They belong in rehab or behind bars."
Terry McKinney, a Vancouver resident and activist, received the pamphlets and was not happy. "I wanted to sue the bastards for attacking my human rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights," he said.
McKinney clarified, "the first pamphlet was a direct attack aimed at anyone using drugs and their (addicts) total lack of humanity." It was followed by "several more attacking addicts, drug use, juvenile crime, you get the picture," he said.
"These people claim to be born again Christians," McKinney continued, "but all you ever hear from them is the moral dogma. There is no trace of compassion,caring or sympathy for their fellow man. As a person with addiction issues for almost 40 years, I have never seen such a rejection of research and science for purely personal religious beliefs in a ruling party."
Canadian voters go to the polls in less than two weeks. A Conservative majority government would be bad news for drug reform, a Liberal-NDP government might take some steps in the direction of reform, but for this election cycle at least it looks like drug reform is on the sidelines.