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He could smoke the opposition or see dreams go up in smoke

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau answers questions from the media in Quebec City on Thursday about his use of marijuana.

FRANCIS VACHON / THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Enlarge Image

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau answers questions from the media in Quebec City on Thursday about his use of marijuana.

It did not take long for the Conservative government to react when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau admitted this week in an interview he had smoked marijuana since being elected to the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, touring Canada's Far North, said Trudeau's actions "speak for themselves."

Justice Minister Peter MacKay was much more forthcoming.

"By flouting the laws of Canada while holding elected office, he shows he is a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones," MacKay said. "Justin Trudeau is simply not the kind of leader our country needs."

Perhaps not. But he might just be the kind of leader the country wants.

Trudeau is directly challenging the stock political position on marijuana, which is to keep it a prohibited drug and punish users and traffickers with criminal charges. However, this is no flyer; Trudeau is wading into this issue with the comfort of knowing most Canadians agree with him.

The science surrounding marijuana has shown it is as benign as alcohol. Old arguments about it being a "gateway drug" have been summarily dismissed. Police forces want to deal with simple possession offences with citations rather than criminal charges so they can focus resources on battling serious drugs such as crystal meth.

More importantly, whether it was through broad national surveys or totally unscientific online straw polls, most of us have made it clear we don't think pot is risky, or that anyone caught with small amounts should be imprisoned or left with a criminal record.

Why then, isn't everyone rushing to legalize pot? For one thing, the mainstream political playbook doesn't encourage it. This is the list of traditional tactics and positions adopted by all parties -- regardless of ideological origin -- especially if they think that one day they can lead the country.

The playbook preaches the gospel of non-confrontation. The rule of thumb is you try mightily to avoid taking any controversial position because, even though a lot of people might support you, an equal or greater number might oppose. You may struggle to muster support, but you must never, ever do something to spark a groundswell of opposition.

Politicians in this country also generally acknowledge there is a generational divide that makes this particular issue even riskier. Older Canadians, who are more likely to vote, are vehemently opposed to any liberalization of pot laws; younger Canadians, who generally support a new approach to marijuana laws, are less likely to show up and vote.

That is likely why NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is being so cagey about his own cannabis experiences. Mulcair admitted he smoked pot, but refused to say when and where. And the NDP's position on limited decriminalization of small amounts of pot seems wholly inadequate against the backdrop of Trudeau's bold gambit. Having finally achieved official Opposition, it seems Mulcair is unwilling to obscure his dreams of forming government with a cloud of marijuana smoke.

Trudeau, the leader of a third party with an uncertain future, appears to have less to lose. Make no mistake, Trudeau made his admission to the Huffington Post only after the website asked all three party leaders to confirm their own experiences with pot. Given that a couple of notable pot activists have already claimed to have enjoyed reefers with the Liberal leader, it would be have been silly to hedge on his answer.

And Trudeau cannot escape the rather profound change in his position on this subject in the last four years. In 2009, he voted with his party on a Tory bill that would impose minimum sentences for marijuana offences. He also said in interviews he opposed decriminalization because the pot grown today is stronger and more dangerous.

In his Huffington Post interview, he reveals his late brother, Michel, who died in a B.C. avalanche in 1998, was facing a marijuana-possession charge at the time of his death. Trudeau said that is when he first began to consider the legalization of pot. If this tragedy made him reconsider his position on the issue, then why did he vote for minimum sentences and denounce decriminalization a decade later?

Even with those inconsistencies nipping at his heels, Trudeau's admissions will likely spark increased interest in his leadership and his party as it heads toward a key election showdown in 2015. Early reaction seems to be mostly positive; those who want an overhaul of pot laws are thrilled and seem to be willing to interpret his admissions as a demonstration of honesty and integrity. If that opinion were to persist, the Tories would run the risk of being cast as the cranky, obstinate parents who torment their children with can't-win arguments.

There is no certainty Trudeau's admissions will earn his party additional support. And unless estranged younger voters turn up in numbers, it might actually hurt the Grits.

For the time being, he will have to be satisfied with being the coolest politician in the country.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2013 A6

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Updated on Friday, August 23, 2013 at 6:47 AM CDT: Adds photo

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