12/19/2013 12:16 EST | Updated 02/18/2014 05:59 EST

Harper Is No Anti-Pot Crusader

The Economist got quite a few things wrong in their recent smug editorial chronicling the various ways Canada has ceased to be "cool." But no paragraph displayed a starker ignorance -- and a more disingenuous effort to snip and censor facts until they could be shoehorned into a pre-determined Harper-bashing conclusion -- than this one:

"Among the policies deemed praiseworthy in 2003 [when the Economist wrote a famous cover story on Canadian coolness] was a bill to decriminalize cannabis (which was never passed).

It was a radical idea at the time, but since then two American states have gone much further, legalizing the production, sale and recreational use of the drug. Uruguay is poised to do the same. Mr. Harper's reaction to a call by Justin Trudeau to legalize it -- he accused the Liberal leader of "promoting marijuana use for our children" -- made it clear that Canada would not be loosening the rules soon. His government has introduced mandatory, six-month jail sentences for possession of as few as six pot plants and in April will make growing medical marijuana at home illegal."

It's hard to know where to begin with all this. The idea that Prime Minister Harper's slow transformation of Canada from enlightened bastion of permissive liberalism to -- as another British editorial put it -- "rightwing hellhole" has included a particularly small-minded attack on progressive marijuana policy is one of the social left's most cherished tropes about the man, presumably because (as is so often the case with Harper-hating) it sounds plausible enough.

The truth, alas, is vastly more nuanced.

Take the old Liberal government's "bill to decriminalize cannabis" the Economist mourns. It was a far more complicated piece of legislation than such a simple summary suggests.

Introduced in May of 2003 by then-attorney general Martin Cauchon and killed in November when Prime Minister Chretien prorogued parliament, Bill C-38 sought to turn possession of under 15 grams of marijuana into a finable (up to $400) offence, rather than a jailable one.

Yet in order to provide political cover for such, as the Economist puts it, "radicalism," the Cauchon bill also doubled the maximum jail sentence for pot-growing from seven to 14 years and strengthened punishments for those caught dealing or smoking "near any public place" where people under 18 might be present. Much of the pro-pot scene concluded that, on the whole, C-38 would actually make Canada's marijuana status quo worse, and vehemently opposed it. Those were the good ol' days.

Since then, the Harper government has passed legislation that -- wait for it -- doubles the maximum jail term for pot-growing from seven to 14 years and strengthens punishments for those caught dealing or smoking "near any public place" where people under 18 might be present. In other words, the regression of today is the radicalism of yesteryear.

In fairness, of course, the Harper government has not (yet) followed through on the decriminalization half of Minister Cauchon's 2003 agenda, but it hardly goes without saying that this should give reason for the pot set to be outraged -- at least not to the hysterical degree they usually are.

As mentioned, 2003 saw much debate among pro-pot people as to whether or not Canada's possession laws could, in fact, be reformed in any useful way. Many felt it was preferable to just stick with the status quo, and accept that the willingness of overburdened cops and judges to turn a blind eye to petty pot possession already creates a sort of de facto decriminalization.

As the pro-legalization Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy noted in a 2006 memo on the Cauchon bill, even introducing light fines for possession could still mean the "penalties might even be higher than under the current law, since many courts have been very lenient in sentencing for possession under the current law." One imagines we'll see these same arguments dusted off shortly, assuming our current attorney general's recent noises about turning low-level possession into a finable offence ever amount to anything.

It's in the realm of medical marijuana, however, where Harper critics careen from ideologically-motivated misunderstandings to malicious fantasies. Yes, it's true that under the terms of the sweeping medical marijuana reforms introduced by Health Minister Aglukkaq last year, Canadians can no longer privately grow medicinal pot plants in the comfort of their own homes. And yes, I'm sure this sucks for all those happy home-growers whose sob stories the press has been eager to publicize. But it's also true that the end of home-growing is at best, an asterisk on a far more lasting and radical change to Canada's marijuana regime: the legalization of free-market retail distribution of medical cannabis.

Privately-run, boutique pot shops -- many of which offer their wares to clients of exceedingly dubious medical need -- have long been the medical marijuana norm in many American states; Canada's comparatively Soviet policy of only allowing the ill to grow their own pot with government-issued seeds, in contrast, made us the continent's backwards outlier.

In states like Colorado, even before pot was fully legalized, some big cities were said to house more retail pot shops than liquor stores and Starbucks combined. That's the direction this country is now headed under the Tories.

Canada's current government has not been a radically anti-pot administration by any stretch. As is the case on so many issues, the Prime Minister has handled the cannabis file with caution and pragmatism. His policy changes have been incremental and evolving. His is a regime tough on criminal traffickers, but lenient towards smalltime private users and sympathetic to medical ones -- an orientation virtually indistinguishable from his Liberal predecessors. When he eventually wanders off, he will leave a country far more comfortable openly buying and consuming the drug than the one he inherited.

That may not be what many folks on the left expect from this government. It's certainly not what many folks on the right want. But it's reality, and sooner or later will have to be accepted as such.

Photo gallery
Canadian Politicians Who Tried Pot
See Gallery