08/16/2013 05:48 EDT | Updated 08/16/2013 10:53 EDT

Trudeau Liberals' Marijuana Stance Is High-Risk, High-Reward


When the Liberals made Justin Trudeau their new leader, it was a high-risk, high-reward decision. His support for marijuana legalization is no different.

The potential reward in pursuing legalization is not insignificant. Increasingly, the three major parties differentiate themselves from one another only by degrees. But with the Liberals' new stance there is a stark contrast on what to do with the drug. New Democrats support decriminalization, while Conservatives are for the status quo. On this issue, the Liberals stand apart.

It allows the party to present themselves as forward-looking and in favour of smart-on-crime policies, as opposed to (what will undoubtedly be argued are) the timid and backward positions of the NDP and Tories. More importantly, it gives Liberals the potential to crowd New Democrats and the Greens out on this particular issue. NDP voters are, polls suggest, more likely to support legalization than decriminalization. And while the Greens support legalization, voters who feel this is an important issue may believe their vote would be better placed with a party that is more likely to be in a position to change the law.

Fishing in the Conservative pool of voters is certainly one aim of Trudeau Liberals — they have generally been more centrist on economic and fiscal issues — but the party will only win the next election outright if they can drive support for the NDP and Greens back to 20 per cent or less. This may be one way to do it.

Getting the youth vote to support the Liberals and actually head out to the polls is undoubtedly another part of the strategy, but there is no indication that middle-aged voters are any less supportive of legalization. It may not be a vote-driving issue for these Canadians, however. South of the border, it does seem that turnout was up in states where marijuana was a ballot issue. The goal may not be, then, to get younger voters on side with Liberals (it might be just as effective with older voters under the age of 55), but rather to give them a reason to get to the polls.

But will the legalization of marijuana be a major issue in the next federal election? That is where the risk comes in. It is hard to believe that 2015 will be the marijuana election, but Conservatives and New Democrats will almost certainly use it in their attacks against the Liberal leader. For the NDP, it gives them an opportunity to portray themselves as more reasonable and less radical than the Liberals, an essential strategy if they are to seriously challenge for government. With the NDP's more middle-way position on marijuana, Thomas Mulcair can pose as the responsible leader in juxtaposition to the inexperienced Trudeau's recklessness. The Liberal leader will need to flesh out the policy more during the campaign, and could be put on the spot on details.

For Conservatives, it is a perfect issue for their constituency. Their opposition to decriminalization or legalization puts them as the 'tough on crime' party. But while it may not be a number one issue for many, for those who are nevertheless uncomfortable with the idea of legalization — and these are primarily to be found among older voters who get out to the polls in big numbers — it could plant the seed of doubt that prevents them from casting a ballot for Trudeau.

The policy is a gamble that may or may not pay off in 2015. But the Liberals did not make Trudeau their leader to play it safe.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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