By all accounts, Canada's long-ruling Liberal Party is about to be replaced in Ottawa by the opposition Conservatives when voters go to the polls Monday. With Conservative leader Steven Harper talking tough on drugs and crime, it looks like Canada's experiment with progressive drug policy reform is about to come to end -- at least at the federal level. The questions now facing observers are how bad it will be, and whether the Liberals' thrashing at the hands of voters will be so thorough that the New Democratic Party (NDP), with the most progressive drug policy of any major party, will emerge as a strong alternative.
For American readers, the Conservatives are roughly comparable to Republicans and the Liberals to Democrats, while the NDP is analogous to the Democratic Party's labor wing mixed with a dollop of leftish dissidents and a sprinkle of drug reformers attracted by its stance on drug policy. A fourth party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois, has no analog in US politics, but could be compared to a "Texas Party" or "California Party" whose primary plank is independence.
Under Canada's parliamentary system, a party needs a majority of the 308-seat House of Commons to govern on its own. The Liberals currently rule as a minority government, with 135 seats to 99 for the Conservatives, 54 for the Bloc, and 19 for the NDP, with one independent. But according to seat projections based on the latest polls, which show the Conservatives running five to 10 points ahead of the Liberals and 15 to 20 points ahead of the NDP (the Bloc is irrelevant everywhere except Quebec), the political landscape is about to shift dramatically.
Based on six polls released this week, Conservatives will win somewhere between 135 and 178 seats. Half the projections show the Conservatives winning more than 154 seats -- enough to form a majority government. Liberal fortunes are predicted to decline dramatically from their current 135 seats, to somewhere between 33 and 84 seats, while the NDP is projected to win between 30 and 40 seats, up from its current 19. The Bloc is projected to maintain roughly the same level of support it currently has, winning somewhere between 50 and 60 seats.
With numbers like these, Monday's election will be a nail-biter. A Conservative victory seems clear, but the real issue will be whether the party can win enough seats to govern alone. An unvarnished Conservative majority in parliament would be very bad news for drug reform, while a Conservative minority government would merely be bad news.
The Conservative platform on drug policy tells us why: "The Liberals have put Canada on the road to drug legalization. This must stop," the platform reads. "Parents and police officers alike know that the last thing Canada needs is more drugs on our streets. Under the Liberals, the number of marijuana grow-ops has increased dramatically, as has the production and distribution of drugs such as crack cocaine, crystal meth, and ecstasy."
The platform calls on the party to kill the Liberals' long-standing marijuana decriminalization bill and for mandatory minimum sentences for pot growers and people who traffic over six pounds of the weed. Harper and the Conservatives also call for mandatory minimum sentences for methamphetamine and crack cocaine sellers. In a shot at American marijuana refugees like Rene Bojee and Steve Kubby, the platform also calls for the expedited deportation of non-citizens convicted of trafficking, smuggling, or growing marijuana. While harm reduction initiatives like the Vancouver safe injection site and the heroin maintenance trials are not addressed in the platform, Harper and his spokesmen have said they do not intend to use federal funds to pay for such programs.
The Liberal campaign agenda does not even mention drugs, but it joins the Tories in the call for mandatory minimum sentences, at least for gun and gang crimes. And while NDP leader Jack Layton will say if asked that approaches to marijuana should not be punitive -- the party platform in 2004 all but called for legalization -- marijuana is not mentioned in the NDP's current platform, and the only mention of drugs comes in NDP calls for restrictions on methamphetamine precursors and increased funding for drug treatment.
But while Canada is largely viewed as lax on marijuana enforcement, more than 48,000 people were arrested on possession charges last year, according to Statistics Canada. That's a 15% increase over 2003. Another 14,000 were arrested on marijuana growing or trafficking charges.
Canadian drug reformers are watching anxiously. "I'm concerned about the rhetoric coming out of the Harper campaign," said Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. "They always seem to be talking about tougher criminal laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and the like. This is very frightening because anyone who has examined this knows mandatory minimum sentences are a disaster, and not just for drugs. If the Conservatives win a majority government, I fear they will perpetuate here the disaster we see south of the border," he told DRCNet.
"The Conservatives seem to be saying they just want to rely on the criminal law, and that would be marching backwards on some very important harm reduction measures," said Oscapella. "I'm hoping this is just rhetoric to get elected, but having seen some of these Members of Parliament in action, they may actually believe this nonsense."
"I think Harper is absolutely serious about cracking down on marijuana and sending people to prison. If it was up to him and his party it would happen," said former Cannabis Culture editor Dana Larsen. "If they had a majority government, they would pass stricter drug laws, cut back on social programs, and invest billions in prisons and war machines. He might find himself fiscally unable to live up to those promises, but I think he is sincere," Larsen told DRCNet.
Whether the Conservatives win an outright majority will be critical for the future of Canadian drug policy. Without a parliamentary majority, a Conservative government would have to win votes elsewhere to pass tough new drug legislation, and those could prove hard to come by. "The only party making any sense on drug policy is the NDP, and maybe the Greens, and if the Conservatives form a minority government with the NDP, I'm less worried about drug policy issues," said Oscapella. "Likewise with the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc is sensible on these issues. The Liberals weren't exactly stellar on this themselves," he said.
"It looks like a minority Conservative government, and that will make a big difference," said Larsen. "They will have to get another party to agree with them on drug bills, and that will limit their ability to do anything radical. A majority Conservative government would be worse for our movement," he said. "I think the best we can hope for is a Conservative minority government with a strong NDP showing."
Even though Layton and the NDP have downplayed drug policy, Canadian reformers are willing to grant them some slack. "I don't fault the NDP for not hitting on drug policy reform so much this year," said Oscapella. "They're tying to get elected, and they know it could be used against them, and it's just not a major issue in the campaign."
But even if the NDP isn't talking a lot about drug policy, that hasn't stopped the Conservatives from attacking. In one TV spot aired this week in British Columbia, Layton's trademark mustache was superimposed over a "normal" Canadian voter saying "I want to legalize drugs."
"I wouldn't say their drug policy is awesome, but the NDP is light years ahead of everyone else," said Larsen. "While Layton hasn't talked much about marijuana this campaign, whenever he is asked about it he says that real decriminalization is not punitive, and in the ridings, a number of candidates have spoken out forthrightly."
"What's most important is how well the NDP does," said Larsen, who left the Marijuana Party to join the NDP and who now heads up an informal NDP anti-prohibitionist caucus. "The Liberals and Conservatives traditionally take turns, but this time the Liberals could really get routed. People have tended not to vote NDP because they want to win, but this time progressives and the left just might go NDP instead of Liberal."
"The BC Marijuana Party is doing something similar to 2004, we're supporting the NDP," said Kirk Tousaw, BCMP campaign manager. "It's the only one of three major parties that we think has the right stance on cannabis policy reform. We've openly supported them, printed out some campaign cards, and Marc is out campaigning for them right now," he told DRCNet.
A Conservative government would also be bad news in Marc Emery's battle to avoid extradition to the United States, where he faces up to life in prison on charges related to his marijuana seed-selling business. "There is no chance a Conservative justice minister would deny surrendering Marc to the US," said Tousaw. "Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler had no difficulty signing off on Rene Bojee's extradition, but we still have a slim chance. With the Conservatives, that chance would be zero."
But Tousaw is looking ahead to a Conservative government. "If we are going to be dealing with the Conservatives, it's a matter of getting them to understand that ending prohibition fits conservative objectives such as reducing the size of government and government spending," said Tousaw. Tousaw also took faint cheer from the fact that Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, author of a Canadian Senate report calling for legalization, is a Harper campaign advisor. "The one good thing is at least there are guys like Senator Nolin who would act as a check on any crazy legislation," he said.
While the Conservatives appear headed for victory, it isn't because of drug policy, Larsen said. "I don't think most Canadians are voting Conservative because of drug policy; it's just that they don't like the Liberals anymore. If it came to a popular referendum on these issues, I don't think the Conservatives would win."
As for the Liberals' decriminalization bill, which would have subjected small-time pot possessors to fines but not a criminal record, no one was especially broken up at the thought of its demise. "That bill was simply not enough," said Larsen.
Oscapella was another who wasn't sad to see the end of the Liberals' decrim bill. "It wasn't very good," he said. "Some people think it's better to take small steps than no steps at all, but I'm afraid if we got that bill, it might suppress debate on the issue for a long time."
"The decrim bill is not a big loss," said Tousaw. "The bill was flawed. If you're going to do reform, let's make it real. What's more troubling is the idea that any progressive marijuana law reform would be dead under a Conservative government."