Canadian voters will decide on Monday whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party will retain control of the federal government, or if one of several competing parties will get a chance to take over.
The result of the election could have a variety of implications for marijuana policy about one year after the country legalized cannabis—a reform move that Trudeau campaigned on in 2015.
But it’s not just marijuana positions that separate the parties, as broader drug policy issues have also exposed differences in the direction Canada may take depending on which party controls the House of Commons.
Here’s a breakdown of where each party and their respective leaders stand on drug policy.
Liberal Party: Justin Trudeau
During his first campaign for prime minister, Trudeau pledged to legalize cannabis nationwide if elected—and while it didn’t materialize as quickly as he’d anticipated, marijuana prohibition was officially ended for adults in October 2018.
But while the prime minister scored points with advocates for making good on his promise, he’s disappointed others with the specifics of its implementation and for repeatedly declining to give his support to broader drug decriminalization efforts.
Trudeau was asked in February 2018 whether his administration would consider lifting criminal penalties for opioid possession as a means to combat the drug crisis. He responded that the policy is “not a step that Canada is looking at taking at this point.”
“It’s not part of the plan,” Trudeau, who admitted to using cannabis while serving in the House of Commons, said. “There are many steps we can and have taken.”
He made similar comments when he was asked about the same issue the previous year, stating that the country “is not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana.”
The reasoning, Trudeau said, is because “there’s a lot of other tools that we are using right now instead.”
“We are going to focus on getting the control and regulation of [the] marijuana regime right, and that’s quite a handful right now,” he said. “We’re not looking at any other steps.”
Trudeau’s views on the issue don’t necessarily align with those of his party, however. Liberal delegates voted in favor of a resolution that sought to remove criminal penalties for drug offenses at a convention last year, hoping to put the policy on the party’s campaign platform for this upcoming election.
“The Government of Canada should treat drug abuse as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services and re-classify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations,” the measure stated.
Following the vote, however, Trudeau said at a press conference that “it’s not part of our plans.”
The party did ultimately adopt a formal platform backing certain harm reduction policies such as safe consumption sites and stipulating that first-time non-violent drug offenders should be diverted to drug treatment court in order to “help drug users get quick access to treatment, and to prevent more serious crimes.”
During a debate with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer last month, decriminalization came up again. While Trudeau initially said it wasn’t on the party’s agenda “at the moment,” he later clarified in a press scrum that “we will not be further decriminalizing any drugs other than cannabis.”
Bill Blair, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, said in April 2018 that the government had “no plans to legalize or decriminalize any other drugs” besides marijuana.
But despite opposition from the administration, some Liberal lawmakers have been undeterred. MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith introduced a bill in July that would repeal sections of federal drug law that concern possession, effectively decriminalizing the controlled substances.
And the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, which is controlled by the majority Liberals, issued a report in June recommending the government “work with provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous communities and law enforcement agencies to decriminalize the simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances.”
Conservative Party: Andrew Scheer
All but one member of the Conservative Party, including Scheer, voted against legalizing marijuana last year. However, if elected to the majority, Scheer said lawmakers wouldn’t seek to overturn the law.
“We will maintain…the fact that cannabis is legal, we are not going to change that and we do support the idea of people having those records pardoned” for prior cannabis offenses, he said in June.
Scheer asked about position on cannabis. Says he won’t change legal status but will spend on research on effects and prevent children from getting it.
— Adam Hunter (@AHiddyCBC) June 25, 2019
While he’s pledged to uphold the legal marijuana program, the Conservative leader said during a debate with Trudeau that he’d use funds for cannabis tax revenue to increase enforcement against the illicit market. Scheer also accused the prime minister of promoting a “secret agenda” to decriminalize and legalize “hard drugs.”
The party also pushed advertisements on Facebook that falsely accused the Liberals of seeking to “legalize hard drugs.”
“This is yet another example of Conservatives copying the American right-wing playbook, spreading false information to scare and mislead voters,” Liberal Party spokesperson Joe Pickerill said in response to the ads.
Conservative Senators visited Washington, D.C. to meet with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018. The purpose of the trip, according to a press release, was to investigate the “predictable consequences of legalization for Canadians traveling to the United States” by discussing the matter with the anti-marijuana official.
Though Scheer and other Conservative lawmakers have derided drug policy proposals from the Liberals, their official party platform does stress the need to craft drug laws that treat addiction as a public health issue.
“To help more Canadians recover from addiction, we will revise the federal government’s substance abuse policy framework to make recovery its overarching goal,” the platform states. “We will reorient the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy towards ensuring that every addict has the opportunity to recover from their addiction and to lead a drug-free life and that all policies that fall under the Strategy have recovery as their objective.”
Conservatives also voiced support for expanding drug treatment facilities, funding education campaigns that encourage young people to avoid illicit substances and partnering with school districts and other institutions to clean up used needles.
New Democratic Party (NDP): Jagmeet Singh
All NDP lawmakers present for the vote on the cannabis legalization bill supported it. The party has not shied away from broader drug decriminalization, and members have emphasized the need to promote restorative justice in Canada’s marijuana program.
“New Democrats believe that there is much more we can do to save lives and support those struggling with opioids,” the party’s platform reads. “In government, we will declare a public health emergency and commit to working with all levels of government, experts and Canadians to end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction, so that people struggling with addiction can get the help they need without fear of arrest, while getting tough on the real criminals—those who traffic in and profit from illegal drugs.”
The platform voiced support for expanding overdose prevention facilities and investigating the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis and ensuring that the public is compensated if the industry is found culpable.
“We will also proactively expunge criminal records for Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession,” NDP said. “With cannabis now legal in Canada, too many people are still burdened with criminal records for simple possession—records that mean real hardships that affect their employment opportunities and their ability to travel. These records for minor cannabis possession will be completely erased, allowing people to get on with building their lives.”
Singh has repeatedly proposed decriminalization as a solution to the country’s drug problems.
“I can tell you from personal experience, but I can also show you—and I’m sure you all know that there’s a preponderance of evidence when we look at those folks that are being charged with personal possession of a controlled substance people that are being arrested and incarcerated, these are folks that are struggling with issues of mental health of addiction and poverty,” Singh said in November 2017. “To me poverty, mental health and addictions don’t sound like criminal justice problems. They sound to me like a social justice problem that should be dealt with like a social justice problem.”
“That’s why I’m calling for the decriminalization of all personal possession offenses when it comes to drugs, to make a difference in the lives of people and actually bring real change,” he said.
During a debate as Singh was competing to become leader of NDP, he emphasized his decriminalization proposal.
“I would call for the immediate decriminalization of all personal possession offenses when it comes to drugs. Period,” he said.
NDP has also been critical of the rollout of Canada’s legal marijuana law, with the party writing in September that “Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had plenty of time to get this right” and it’s “not enough,” referring to the limited number of pardons for cannabis convictions that the government had issued.
Justin Trudeau's Liberals had plenty of time to get this right. This is not enough. The NDP is going to keep fighting for criminal records for Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession to be expunged.https://t.co/jh55LJmpbe
— NDP (@NDP) September 9, 2019
“The NDP is going to keep fighting for criminal records for Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession to be expunged,” they said.
NDP MP Don Davies unsuccessfully tried to get unanimous consent for a measure to “immediately provide pardons for those burdened by criminal records for cannabis offenses that will soon be legal” shortly after the legalization bill passed.
“For some people in Canada, and in some places, pot has been effectively legal for years,” Singh said in October 2018. “But depending on who you are, the color of your skin, and where you live, there’s a different set of rules.”
With #CannabisLegalization let's remember that pot has been effectively legal for some Canadians for years while others, predominately Indigenous & racialized ppl, are still being punished by criminal records affecting their daily lives. Let's delete these records once & for all: pic.twitter.com/wdXBiJCui7
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) October 16, 2018
A private member bill introduced by NDP MP Murray Rankin to expunge criminal records for cannabis possession was rejected by Liberal lawmakers in May despite agreement that minority communities have been disproportionately impacted by federal drug laws.
In May, NDP urged their Liberal colleagues to answer questions about the impact of medical cannabis taxes on patients.
“The Liberal tax on medical cannabis is unfair and damaging to the health of patients. It shows that the Liberal government is out of touch with the reality of people,” NDP Deputy Leader Alexandre Boulerice said. “So far, my questions to the Minister have gone unanswered. But this time, I hope that he will finally justify the stance taken by the Liberals.”
“Medical cannabis must be treated just like other prescription drugs. Its price must be reviewed and untaxed in order to allow patients to treat themselves properly,” Boulerice said. “Some patients are forced to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars each month to get their medication. This is wrong!”
Green Party: Elizabeth May
May voted for the cannabis legalization bill, and the Green Party platform backs decriminalizing all drugs, pledging to “address the opioid crisis as a health-care issue, not a criminal issue, by declaring a national health emergency.”
“Drug possession should be decriminalized, ensuring people have access to a screened supply and the medical support they need to combat their addictions,” it says.
The platform includes several provisions aimed at reforming the current legal marijuana regime.
“A year into the legalization of cannabis, the flaws in the regulatory framework for cannabis production and sale are evident and a reform agenda is emerging,” the party said, adding that the government’s regulatory approach “treats the production of cannabis as uniquely dangerous” and that’s contributed to the ongoing presence of an illicit market.
To combat the issue, Green Party said it would lower the federally set price of marijuana to be more competitive with illicit sellers, eliminate “excess plastic packaging” requirements, remove excise duties and sales tax on medical cannabis products, allow outdoor cultivation, impose organic production standards and allow CBD to be marketed as a natural health supplement.
“Security requirements mean growers must use more energy and water and deal with diseases and pests that thrive in greenhouses, increasing costs and hobbling their ability to meet production expectations,” the platform says.
Other policies the party supports include expanding funding of community-based organizations that test drugs for safety and increase the availability of the overdose reversal medication naloxone.
“We must stop treating drug addiction as a criminal issue and start treating is as a health-care issue,” May said in a press release last month announcing her party’s support for decriminalization. “This is a national health emergency.”
“The opioid crisis is a national tragedy that is devastating communities and families across Canada,” she said. “We have to abandon old notions of the ‘war on drugs’ and join the battle that really matters—the fight to save Canadian lives.”
“It’s hard to stand up as a national party leader and say it’s time to decriminalize all illicit drugs,” May said during a press conference. “It’s what we have to do.”
“We have to take emergency steps in an emergency situation, and it’s far too dangerous to allow people, whether they’re living on the streets or living at home with their parents…to have illicit drugs that are not thoroughly screened for fentanyl contamination,” she said.
Bloc Québécois: Yves-François Blanchet
Members of the Bloc Québécois, which is primarily focused on advocating for Quebec sovereignty, voted against the marijuana legalization bill.
The party’s leader, Blanchet, doesn’t appear to have extensively discussed cannabis or drug policy issues.
Former Bloc Québécois Party Leader Martine Ouellet was more outspoken about the need for reform and said in 2017 that the country should nationalize a legal cannabis market.
“With the legalization…it creates a brand new market and [it] is a market that is currently occupied by criminal organizations,” she said. “The choice we have, do we want it to go from criminal organizations to private firms, big corporations, or if we want these profits to go from criminal organizations to all citizens?”
Ensuring that individuals provinces have the jurisdiction to allow or ban home cultivation for personal use was reportedly a key policy the party supported.
People’s Party of Canada (PPC): Maxime Bernier
Bernier, voted against the cannabis legalization bill as a Conservative lawmaker but said that he would not reverse it if elected. However, he pledged to remain watchful of the industry.
“In the longer term, my main worry is to make sure that we see the illegal market significantly reduced and ideally disappear,” he said through a spokesperson. “That was one of the key justifications for cannabis legalization.”
“If [the illicit market] stays large, we would look at regulatory and tax changes to ensure the legal market is better served,” he said. “We do not have any specific proposal for now. Same thing for edibles.”
According to Burnaby Now, Bernier has said that he’s in favor of marijuana legalization in principle and that the country should review the impact of safe consumption sites.
When running as for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2016, Bernier welcomed an endorsement from Marc Emery, the so-called “Prince of Pot” who has since faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Emery said at the time, “I don’t even know what his position on marijuana is and I don’t care because for me Maxime Bernier represents a long-term future on all the issues” during a radio interview.
— Maxime Bernier (@MaximeBernier) September 14, 2016
Days before Bernier formally launched the PPC last year, Emery told The Toronto Star that he “totally” endorses the candidate’s policies.
“I’ve never seen anything I disagree with,” Emery said.
Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, a PPC candidate, said earlier this year that the party does not have an official stance on cannabis policy but expressed personal opposition to legalization.
What To Expect
Analysts expect voter turnout to be down for the Liberals, as enthusiasm for Trudeau continues to suffer amid controversy over revelations that he wore blackface and brownface. That’s presented an opportunity that some of the lesser parties such as the Greens intend to take advantage of, with May urging voters to elect enough of her party members to the House of Commons to prevent the Liberals from winning an outright majority.
That situation would mean that “the Greens and other smaller parties would hold the balance of power, possibly even including the Bloc Québécois,” The New York Times reported.
But regardless of the outcome, what appears certain is that Canada’s legal marijuana law will survive no matter which party holds power, though the specifics of how the program will continue to roll out could depend on the electoral results.
A bigger question is whether the country will build on the momentum of cannabis legalization and pursue broader drug policy reforms such as decriminalization or if that movement will stall under unsupportive leadership.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Policarpio.