O, Cannabis! How Trudeau Can Shape the Cannabis Narrative

September 16, 2019

Cannabis legalization was a major 2015 election promise from the Liberals, and has turned out to be both a significant economic-driver and a legal-cultural watershed moment. However, the Liberals have been reticent to discuss this achievement due to the mixed bag of results from pushing the legalized cannabis roll-out to each of the provinces.  

While cannabis legalization was a top issue for many progressive voters in the 2015 election – especially first-time youth voters – legalized cannabis today may seem like old news to these same voters, even just one year after legalization. It can therefore be more challenging for the Liberals to rally millennials to go to the polls on Election Day, a demographic that tends to vote more on ballot box issues than on party support, so the Liberals need to find a way to put the excitement back in marijuana.

This is more difficult than it seems.

The economic benefit stemming from legalization is not likely to help Liberals expand their seat count because many of the local economies that are seeing a boost from legalized cannabis are in rural and former manufacturing ridings, which tend to be conservative strongholds. For example, in Smiths Falls where Tweed has a production facility, incumbent Conservative MP Scott Reid (the only Conservative MP to vote in favour of cannabis legalization) has a 45.2% chance of keeping his seat, almost 19 points ahead of his Liberal opponent. In Fraser Valley, where Canopy Growth and Tweed converted a former bell pepper greenhouse into a cannabis greenhouse complex, CPC candidate Tako van Popta has a 46.9% chance of winning the seat with a 17-point lead compared to the Liberals. In Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, where a former Fleetwood trailer factory is being converted into a cannabis production facility with 500 new jobs, the Conservative incumbent has a 41.9% chance of keeping his seat.

Similarly, polls project that the Liberals are expected to lose some of their rural gains made in 2015 – rural ridings that have seen the economic benefits of cannabis legalization. In the Hastings-Lennox and Addington riding, the Conservatives have a 6.3 point lead over Liberal incumbent Mike Bossio. This is in spite of ABcann expanding its cannabis production facility in Napanee with a $30 million investment, which would not have been possible without the support from MPs like Bossio voting in favour of cannabis legalization.

While the Liberals have likely stayed quiet on announcing any cannabis platforms until the official start of the election, this week’s writ drop means that the Liberals have no reason not to tout a policy that has seen a new industry now worth $7.79 billion (as of Q2) create thousands of new jobs – if done properly.

An August 16 tweet from Liberal senior Liberal campaign staffer, Gerald Butts, highlights the pitfalls of shaping the narrative around cannabis legalization. In his tweet, Butts takes a jab at Ontario’s cannabis implementation under Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford. While Butts’ is not the only criticism that the Ontario government has received over its cannabis implementation lottery, playing the blame game is hardly the best way to frame the narrative around a key campaign promise that the Trudeau administration delivered; it serves only to spotlight the at-times contentious relationships Trudeau has had with some provinces over cannabis legalization and implementation.

Since the average Canadian is likely unaware of the details or nuances of the implementation of cannabis rollout, the first thing many voters hear about cannabis will shape the entire narrative around this policy. Keeping quiet on an important policy and then initiating the conversation as “we did our part, it’s the other guys who messed up” therefore puts a cloud over the entire accomplishment.

While Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has also stayed relatively quiet on the issue – trying to have his cake on job creation, and eat it too with voters who carry a social stigma against marijuana – he does not intend to recriminalize cannabis but instead wants to improve the system. Conservatives will likely point to the potholes (side note: we do have fun with our puns) in the Liberals’ cannabis legalization, such as issues of at-home cultivation of recreational cannabis in Manitoba and Quebec (where this activity is still criminal, despite a recent Quebec Superior Court ruling). Scheer could even introduce policies that seek to make it easier for small-scale cannabis growers, especially in rural ridings (there are currently only three microcultivators approved by Health Canada).

The Liberals, conversely, should frame their cannabis policies around the accomplishments of cannabis legalization in Canada, with both an economic argument on job creation as well as a legal one on how the government intends to further curb the black market, to set up what’s ahead. For example, the Liberals can also spotlight how they would improve the current system if re-elected in October, such as by investing more resources into Health Canada to streamline the approvals process and/or on cannabis pardons.  Similarly, the Liberals can introduce a policy for First Nations’ jurisdiction over the cannabis industry on their territories.

Getting into fights with the provinces shapes the narrative of cannabis legalization as a series of rocky half-measures, instead of as a major economic and cultural accomplishment.

Gerald Butts knows as well as anyone that the first party or candidate to come out on an issue is often the one who shapes the narrative. Now that the writ has dropped and Trudeau is free to announce concrete platforms, the Liberals should come out strong with victorious language around cannabis legalization: remind voters that cannabis legalization was an important watershed moment to drive excitement, and earn their support by convincing them that the Liberals are the only party who can bring Canada’s cannabis revolution over the finish line as a potential global industry.