Trudeau has a lot riding on Colorado pot plot

When Justin Trudeau dove into the legalized marijuana debate last summer, it initially looked like an unnecessarily polarizing position that too easily allowed his opponents to depict him as a lightweight unable to grapple with more pressing issues.

When Justin Trudeau dove into the legalized marijuana debate last summer, it initially looked like an unnecessarily polarizing position that too easily allowed his opponents to depict him as a lightweight unable to grapple with more pressing issues.

The Liberal leader still surely doesn’t want to get freighted down by his pot ponderings, and it is never going to become the centrepiece of a party platform.

But there is a case to be made that it will be an issue that can move votes in 2015.

Whether Trudeau was being shrewd or was again kissed by serendipity, there is now every reason to believe that marijuana legalization is moving up the political radar and he has much riding on a number of developments south of the border.

He suddenly has a lot at stake in Colorado, but also in Washington State, New York State and a growing number of U.S. jurisdictions that appear to be quickly lining up behind more liberal marijuana laws.

Colorado, which began its legalized marijuana market on New Year’s Day, is a key laboratory that Liberals will be watching.

If the state can distribute recreational marijuana in a way which takes pressure off police, grows state revenues, does not lead to more underage use or impaired driving charges, it will provide a blueprint for any other jurisdiction contemplating the same.

Legislators elsewhere will notice and it will be on the continental radar just as Canadians prepare to vote in 2015.

It will force Stephen Harper and his Conservatives away from their own brand of reefer madness, manifested in their compulsive mentions of Trudeau’s pot gambit at every opportunity.

Of course, if the Colorado experiment devolves into chaos or faces growing opposition, and is, in any way, deemed a failed initiative, Trudeau may rue the day he styled himself as the prince of pot among federal leaders.

With Colorado in business and Washington coming on board later this year, New York is in the spotlight this week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a potential presidential aspirant, was expected to move by executive order, bypassing the legislature and recalcitrant Republicans, to make medical marijuana available in a state which has one of the most punitive marijuana laws on the books.

He follows his neighbour, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who figures in all discussions of that party’s next presidential nominee.

New York will become the 21st state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow the use of regulated medical marijuana, something that has been legal in Canada since the former Liberal government took the step in 2001.

There are more than 39,000 registered users in Canada and late last year, the federal government tossed the medical marijuana market to the private sector, creating what is estimated to be a $1.3-billion market within the next decade.

It is far too early to pass judgment on the Colorado plan and the Financial Times on Wednesday reported demand far exceeds supply in the state, pushing the price of recreational pot to $400 per ounce.

State residents can buy an ounce at a time, with visitors restricted to a quarter-ounce.

However, sales topped $1 million on day one and the state has projected $70 million in new tax revenue for this year.

It would be hard to imagine that Harper and his law-and-order Conservatives could ever move toward legalization after railing against Trudeau and charging that he was advocating marijuana use for minors.

In last November’s byelections in Manitoba, Conservatives told voters “Justin Trudeau’s plan to legalize marijuana will make it more accessible to our kids and encourage recreational drug use.”

But strip back the politics and even the Conservatives are edging toward more liberal pot laws.

Both Harper and his justice minister, Peter MacKay, have hinted they are warming to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police view that fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana are better than criminal charges which tie up resources and manpower in a lengthy legal process.

There are conservatives who must know that a futile police war on cannabis use, including a mandatory six-month minimum sentence for growing as few as six cannabis plants, is increasingly out of step with logic.

At very least, there are Conservatives who can look beyond the horizon and see that this day-to-day combat over marijuana use is no longer effective or economically efficient — or most importantly political saleable, even if it’s Trudeau who is seen as ahead of the curve.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1.

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