Trudeau, pot and the pundits: How to win the PR war and end prohibition

A couple months ago, Carleton University history professor Matthew J. Bellamy published an article in The Walrus demonstrating how Labatt Brewing managed to turn a nation of hard-liquor lovin' Canucks into respectable beer drinkers over the course of Prohibition. In short, Labatt recognized that public perception of booze was more relevant to the prohibition movement than science, criminal justice, or economics, and in turn, marketed their beers as being a reputable, safer, and ultimately Canadian alternative to whisky and brandy, the drinks of choice in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I don't need to tell you how that turned out. As we're in the midst of a nation-wide debate about prohibition of another sort, though, perhaps the past can provide some insight for those who just want to get stoned legally.

Last month, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced his party is going all-in on marijuana legalization. Since you're reading this on rabble.ca, I doubt you need to be convinced of legalization's merits. But the response from more conservative quarters deserves some scrutiny. For example, Alberta Tory MP Michelle Rempel, the recently appointed Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, tweeted that Trudeau's support for one of the easiest, most profitable means of diversifying Western Canada's economy demonstrates that he doesn't share the priorities of most Canadians. Ezra Levant took it one step further, calling it a cause that's 'championed by libertines, not would-be PMs'.

Or take a look at this Sun News poll about readers' support for legalization. Sure, more than 3/4ths of Sun readers are behind the idea, but the first thing you see is a photo of a twenty-ish man, hidden behind sunglasses and a scruffy beard, smoking a spliff on Parliament Hill on 4/20. I doubt he'd fall into the Sun's typical reader profile, but it's that sort of image that gets attached to nearly every article about pot circulating in this country. It's an image that suggests marijuana is a drug that's only enjoyed by shaggy-haired, Marley-obsessed young people -- benign, yes, but also unkempt, unambitious, and generally just stoner-y. (Not helping, I might add, is the eternal horse race among copy editors and lazy reporters to stuff their headlines and ledes with as many pot puns as possible.) I can't imagine there are a whole lot of parents in the vote-rich suburbs of Toronto that want their kids turning out like that. And it's an image that is about as faithful as one of a whisky drinker pissing away his children's food budget on the devil's drink.

This public perception of marijuana users presents one of the bigger challenges to the legalization movement. How do we combat a decades-old stereotype that is perpetuated by popular culture, politicians, and to some extent, smokers themselves? Dana Larsen might have the right idea. The brain behind SensibleBC comes across not as a rambling, incoherent pothead, but a capital-A Adult who, production values aside, makes about as cogent and succinct argument in favour of legalization as you're going to find. Or look to Washington, where former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper emerged as one of the key figures in the legalization movement there. The two men both possess a quality upon which the success of the movement hinges: legitimacy.

I smoke pot. Rather regularly, too. Having been lucky enough to be a journalist in Ottawa at a young age, I've been privy to sessions that most certainly aren't legislative but have been attended by Hill staffers, journalists and a national columnist or two just the same. Beyond the Ottawa bubble, I have gotten stoned with bankers, academics, teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, CEOs ... you know, the type of professionals we tend to see populating the House of Commons and making sure the country more or less functions. But these people are never the face of marijuana in the media, and for good reason: their reputations probably can't afford to be associated with something as supposedly 'libertine' as legalization. Note how all across Twitter, your favourite pundits and partisans will routinely refer to cracking open beers or enjoying a nice glass of wine. Ditto for your coworkers, or family, or depending on your social circle, your friends. When it comes to smoking weed, though, it's as if every Canadian of note came together to decide that, like our sex lives, it's better left to the bedroom. The thousands of professionals who also happen to enjoy marijuana are, in a word, closeted.

So, we're left with a bit of a paradox. We have a cause that's supported by a clear majority of Canadians, and presumably, a large swath of media and political elites. We finally have a federal party leader who's open to legalization. But in the words of just about any hip-hop MC trying to hype up a crowd, "where my weed smokers at?"

When was the last time you heard a prominent Canadian journalist, politician, or television personality admit to actively smoking pot, even a couple tokes a year? Sure, they might support legalization, and a few have referred to smoking it in their youth, but as any good reporter knows, statistics resonate with readers when you put a human face to them.

If that face is some patchouli-scented dude from the B.C. Interior named Jericho, then the status quo remains the same. What if that face were, say, a widely read columnist at an ur-establishment publication like Maclean's? (No one throws in mentions of hot knives on a campfire without having done so himself.) Or basically anybody that might show up on Power and Politics? All I know is that the show is immeasurably more interesting after a bong hit or two. Given its vaunted status among the Twitterati, I'd wager that some of those tweeters feel the same way as I do.

We won't know until someone tries. As much as I'd like to think of myself as a 'prominent Canadian,' my measly 384 followers on Twitter would suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, I've 'come out.' And if you smoke pot recreationally, would like to see it legalized, and have an audience to influence, I urge you do the same.

 

Mike Barber is a former editor at The Mark News who is currently completing his MA in political science at UVic.

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