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Trudeau tokin' is smokin'

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CALGARY -- A huge political gamble? Or an opportunistic move?

The one thing we know for certain is Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's admission that he took a few "puffs" of pot -- even during his term as a member of Parliament -- is not an off-the-cuff, reckless comment. Instead, it is a daring, calculated move that pits Prime Minister Stephen Harper's stodgy old conservatives against the nominally more attuned, youth-focused liberal electorate in a battle for the hearts of core Canadians.

You don't have to support the decriminalization of pot to be fascinated by this high-stakes chess game. If you love watching political strategy on a level that puts the TV series House of Cards to shame, then you'll love what is unfolding in the polarized battle between chubby old family man Harper versus handsome, hunky young family man, Trudeau.

Think of the themes at play. Law and order versus common sense. Rigid adherence to rules versus a little flexibility, because we've all been there at some point in our lives. And dare we say it? Self-righteous mendacity versus plain old openness and honesty.

Make no mistake. The Liberal party orchestrated this move after looking at some interesting polling numbers. An Angus-Reid poll done in the fall of 2012 found 57 per cent of Canadians support the legalization of the possession of marijuana. Even in the U.S., two states -- Washington and Colorado -- have voted in favour of legalizing pot, and 19 states have legalized it for medical use.

Canadians appear to be, if not firmly in favour, at the very least aloof about the use of marijuana. We do not judge our leaders for admitting they've partaken, especially in an era when even the former president of the U.S., Bill Clinton, admitted that he smoked marijuana but (cough, cough) did not inhale.

Let's be clear about this: There is ever-mounting evidence that chronic marijuana use is not good for your health, and for that reason it should not be encouraged. Of course, it is stating the obvious that the same can be said about alcohol, the abuse of which has ruined countless lives.

Substance abuse in any form can have devastating consequences. Trudeau, however, does not claim to be an "abuser," only a recreational sampler of a product many Canadians consider to be no more harmful than liquor. If he claimed to be stoned during party caucus meetings, voters would more likely look askance.

Trudeau also is playing well with his comments that scientific studies suggest the regulation and taxation of marijuana is the best way to keep it out of the hands of youth.

For their part, the Conservatives -- who have had a very easy ride for the past few years from a disorganized opposition -- have stupidly fallen into a very predictable trap. Harper, asked about Trudeau's admission, said the Grit's "actions speak for themselves." Justice Minister Peter MacKay added, "By flouting the laws of Canada while holding elected office, he shows he is a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones."

Neither comment is untrue, and in fact will play well with the Tories' core. But it also reinforces the very impression of the Conservatives that the opposition would like to create -- essentially that it is a boneyard for angry old white guys out of touch with contemporary Canada.

Comically, in admitting he had never smoked pot, Harper pointed to his asthma. So, a reader might reasonably wonder, what would his behaviour be if he did not suffer from that ailment?

(NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, it should be noted, also has admitted to smoking pot, although not while in office. But with his party in a polling free fall, how many voters actually care?)

As with any calculated risk, the outcome of this manoeuvre is far from certain. It is potentially a high-reward move, but it also comes with immense risk. What if the Liberals have misread the electorate? If they are wrong, the miscalculation could have devastating consequences for Trudeau's credibility.

But, on the other hand, if the party has read the voters well on this issue, Trudeau's move could give the recently all-but-moribund third-place party the momentum it needs to be a contender in the next federal election.

Turn off the TV. This real-life drama is much more fun to watch.


Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A15

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