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National Post View: Even when doing the right thing, the Liberals find ways to look helpless and adrift

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Earlier this week, the Liberals took steps to reassure worried voters that they still intend to follow through on their oft-made promise to legalize marijuana. There’s not much meat on the policy bones yet, and trying to read the tea leaves — tea, we stress — of past Liberal positions doesn’t help clarify things much. The Liberal message seems to be that marijuana is a horrible, terrible, very bad, no-good thing that we must legalize to protect our children, and that the Prime Minister has occasionally himself enjoyed to no apparent ill effect.

Everyone clear on that?

Nonetheless, the Liberals did make one firm statement: marijuana would be legalized in Canada on or before July 1, 2018. And unlike their promise to get rid of our first-past-the-post electoral system by the next election, they’re apparently serious.

Surprisingly (even to ourselves) we believe them. We welcome this pledge and hope they stick the landing this time. Marijuana legalization is not nearly as complicated as electoral reform, and it also has the advantage of much broader popular support and much better arguments in favour. It’s an idea whose time came long ago — but better late than never.

Still, we can’t help but roll our eyes at the process, such as it is. This was one of the Liberals’ core promises. Justin Trudeau was promising it to adoring young crowds back when he led a third-place party and the idea of a Liberal return to power was remote, at best. But a year and a half after the election, we know little of their plans to legalize marijuana except that they plan to … legalize marijuana. A government that talks of seeking a more co-operative relationship with the provincial governments has left them in the lurch, unable or unwilling to provide much sense of its direction, even though much of the day-to-day work of a legalized and regulated marijuana regime will fall to the provinces.

And most baffling of all, a government that insists in its party platform that a key reason for legalization is that “too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug” seems utterly unconcerned that many Canadians continue to face arrest and prosecution for possessing small amounts of the drug. They seem to not realize that they actually have the power to change this.

While working to establish a full legalization plan, the Liberals could solve many problems virtually at the stroke of a pen by simply decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. (They could copy and paste the decriminalization laws introduced but never passed under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, for example.) It would be an inelegant and imperfect and temporary solution, but it would have the virtue of speed. The NDP have been calling for it, and the Liberals have a majority in the House of Commons anyway. The Senate is rather more unpredictable these days than we’re used to, but it seems unlikely it would block a simple and short-term expedient measure intended to resolve ambiguities that the impending-but-not-yet-enacted legalization plan has created.

Given the chronic delays in our horrifically backlogged justice system, it’s almost certain the crime will be off the book before any of these cases can even be tried

Consider the recent headline-grabbing raids in various cities on Cannabis Culture dispensaries, which until recently were owned by legalization crusaders Marc and Jodie Emery. The Emerys can be hard to root for, given their habit of flouting the law and daring the police to act, then acting utterly stunned when the police do just that. Still, it’s hard to read or watch recent news coverage of officers raiding shops and arresting employees, when the federal government has pledged to make legal the offence they are arrested for go away in little over a year, and think it’s a good use of police resources.

Given the chronic delays in our horrifically backlogged justice system, it’s almost certain the crime will be off the book before any of these cases can even be tried. And indeed, those delays and backlogs are one of the main arguments made in favour of legalization: it would free up police and court resources otherwise occupied with repeatedly arresting and trying teenagers and the odd mostly harmless activist.

So, yes, it’s a good thing the Liberals are doubling down on this promise, instead of backing away. And yes, we feel they are actually on the right side of this issue. But it’s about time they acted like they knew what they were doing — let’s see the bill and debate it — and had listened to enough of their own talking points to appreciate that immediate decriminalization is both pragmatic and the right thing to do. Even by the standard of this prematurely aged government, that’s not too much to ask.

National Post

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