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Media Bites: Should Trudeau Have Put the "I" in Marijuana?

08/26/2013 12:01 EDT | Updated 10/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Justin Trudeau's big reveal last week that he's smoked pot since becoming a member of the House of Commons (and doesn't regret it!) was a lot of things, but off-the-cuff it certainly was not.

As the Canadian Press quipped in one of those charming bon mots that sometimes sneak into ostensibly serious reporting, "there is method to Justin Trudeau's reefer madness" -- namely his handlers' "calculated" hope that voters will respond favorably to a politician who seems unabashed, unashamed and, well, uncalculating.

But if the editorial pages of the nation are any indication, it's a strategy that's so far yielding decidedly mixed dividends. Pot is not just any illegal drug, after all, it's the outlawed substance whose forbidden status is the most contentious and controversial. And Trudeau's not just any newbie politician, he's a would-be prime minister whose capacity for sensible judgement has always been (to put it gently) a wee bit contentious and controversial unto itself.

So on the one hand, you've got people like the Globe and Mail's Gary Mason, who find Trudeau's drug-doing candor "refreshingly honest."

Look, says Gary, "pot is the parlour drug of choice for many urbanites," and we all know it. Most Canucks have either taken a toke themselves or know someone who has. In confidently confessing to have attended a Canadian-as-maple-syrup house party where ganja was present, J-Tru is therefore able to "to look more enlightened on the subject, more in tune with modern thinking," while the Tories and their disappointed mom-style scoldings "look dated, out of touch and even a little paranoid."

The always-unorthodox Heather Mallick at the Toronto Star goes even further, and claims this news of drug use raises Justin's "coolness quotient" by several points (which I guess gives credence to Minister MacKay's claim that the man is a role model, at least for Toronto Star columnists).

Though she claims to not touch the stuff "anymore" Heather's still a big believer in the idea that people who occasionally inhale are just kinda... better than those who don't -- more generous, sharing, kind, and whatnot -- though in all honesty, the sheer rambliness of her argument does make one second guess the sobriety of her claim.

On the other hand, there's the awkward little fact that the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada just admitted to criminal lawbreaking.

Yes yes, writes the Toronto Star editorial board, marijuana should be legalized yadda yadda, but JT's willingness to admit violating even an unjust prohibition still "reveals a lack of judgment and a disregard for the law and his duty as a parliamentarian to uphold it." Agreed, nods the Toronto Sun board. Not to mention that it's just generally bad practice to get high on the job, and "if the speaking fees fiasco taught us anything, it's that MPs are always on the job." (The "speaking fees fiasco," we may recall, was the last time Justin  got in trouble for saying more than he should, though in that case the issue was less what he said than what it cost.)

The uncertain question that seems to captivate all commentators, however, is whether the stench of pot will linger on Justin, politically speaking. It's not new for politicians to admit past drug use, after all -- the Post's Chris Selley has a fun list -- but what is new is for a politician to make such admissions while simultaneously pressing for legalization.

One of the great fascinations of the marijuana debate is the degree of puritanism we seem to expect from the pro-pot camp. They're supposed to speak in detached, paternalistic tones about why "someone" or "people" or (better yet) "kids" shouldn't be thrown in jail for smoking a bit of weed, with the implicit noblesse oblige subtext being that while such druggies are obviously troubled and uncouth, that's no reason society's lawmaking elite should punish them with equal indignity.

To be fair, this is the way socially liberal causes usually advance. Debates over legalizing something currently deemed not only criminal, but immoral requires a delicate dance around taboos, and elaborate demonstrations of dissociation. No one who argued for the liberalization of divorce laws back in the day would be so crass as to claim he was doing so in order to expedite dumping his own wife, nor did any politician promoting the decriminalization of same-sex "sodomy" openly support the idea on the grounds it would make it that much easier to pursue his unconventional sexual tastes.

You occasionally see the odd female legislator defending abortion rights on the grounds she herself had one, but most pro-choice rhetoric is similarly aloof. The consistent theme of top-down social reform is that society's fortunate caste should not rush to criminalize the underclass' sins simply because no one they know commits them.

This, it seems, is the polite convention Justin Trudeau broke. Overnight, all the abstraction drained from his recent posturing in favour of marijuana legalization and in its place came a cause far more personal.

The Liberal Party is now no longer advocating decriminalization of a banned substance simply out of principled opposition to an unenforceable and unjust prohibition -- they're demanding the removal from the banned substances list a product their leader personally enjoys (or at least has repeatedly consumed).

Justin, in short, committed that most untoward breach of modern political etiquette: self-interestedly advocating the change of a law that he personally breaks.

Optically speaking, that doesn't look good. And as we all know, when it comes to Justin, good looks matter.

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