Will Canada’s New Prime Minister-Designate Change U.S. Drug Policy?

Last week, Canada held a national election to determine their next Prime Minister. Would the conservative incumbent, Steven Harper, remain in power or would the liberal challenger, Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, achieve victory? As the polls closed, Justin Trudeau walked away from the election victorious. In American terms, the Liberal Party won by a landslide. Liberals, all-told, garnered 39.5% of the total vote while the Conservative Party walked away with only 31.9% of the vote (CBC.CA). In the end, most analysts share the same sentiments: a substantial liberal shift just occurred in Canada. The question is, how, if at all, will this effect the United States in terms of our own policies towards the use of and criminalization of drugs?

Let’s be clear about our thesis: We believe the Canadian election results will have no effect on our own policies here in the United States. However, there are some striking similarities between our two countries. These similarities in our politics and culture, we argue, portend the future for American drug and criminal justice policies and it’s a good thing. These similarities include the growing differences between liberals and conservatives. These differences, in very generalized terms, are becoming easier to clearly perceive in Canada and America as it pertains to drug policy and criminal justice. In the United States, our assumption is that most citizens perceive the democratic party and their members as the ones who seek to decriminalize the use of marijuana. They’re also the ones who seek to eliminate jail time for non-violent drug offenses. The Dem’s are on the forefront of trying to change our criminal justice system. On the other hand, our assumption is that in America, most citizens perceive conservatives and the Republican Party as quite the opposite. They’re more inclined to support incarceration as a means to eliminate crime and they’re opposed to the medicinal and/or recreational use of marijuana.

The outgoing, Conservative Prime Minister of Canada had this to say about what he feels Canadian’s really think about the recreational use of marijuana:

In essence, Steven Harper believes that Canadians don’t want to legalize the use of marijuana. The incumbent Liberal, on the other hand, has a polar-opposite view of what Canadian’s really want. The Liberals were very explicit in how they will change policy declaring, “We will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana. Canada’s current system of marijuana prohibition does not work. It does not prevent young people from using marijuana and too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug.”

It seems to us that the unfolding political change in Canada is similar to the changes occurring in the United States.

Of the two leading contenders in the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, you see the former as being a proponent of medicinal use of marijuana but still on the fence when it comes to recreational use:”…you know, states are the laboratories of democracy. We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is” (CNN). Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, seems far more open to the legalization of marijuana and links its prohibition to problems in criminal justice within the U.S.:

“I am not unfavorably disposed to moving toward the legalization of marijuana. We have more people in jail today than any other country on earth. We have large numbers of lives that have been destroyed because of this war on drugs, and because people were caught smoking marijuana and so forth. I think we have got to end the war on drugs” (Washington Post).

Our take on the differences between Bernie and Hillary? Hillary is the presumptive Democratic candidate and she’s taking a safer, middle of the road stance while Senator Sanders is attempting to influence the course of the election cycle and focus public attention on what he feels is an unsustainable growth rate in prison population. Frankly, it seems as though Hillary and Bernie are both in tune with what most Americans believe: medicinal marijuana is acceptable, recreational legalization will most likely roll out over time state-by-state as each sees fit and all agree that non-violent offenders are flooding our jails and prisons costing the American taxpayer a very large sum.

On the Republican side of the fence, there’s more differences between the leading candidates than their is within the Democratic Party. At present, Trump and Carson lead the pack with 27.2% and 21.4% of the presumptive Republican Presidential Candidate Vote (Real Clear Politics).

Trump has an interesting stance on the legalization of drugs and crime. In 2011, Trump advocated the legalization and taxation of drugs although he himself openly admits he never uses drugs, never drinks and never smokes (OnTheIssues.org). In terms of crime, Trump seems to be a die-hard advocate of the “stricter punishment reduces crime” philosophy. Carson, on the other hand, approves of medicinal marijuana, is opposed to recreational use and, like Trump, seems to be an advocate of the stricter punishment philosophy (OnTheIssues.org). Other contenders running for Republican candidacy have very different views with Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul arguing the drug problems in America are public health issues requiring more treatment and less criminalization while Senators Cruz and Rubio seem very opposed to medicinal and/or recreational use of marijuana and a tougher stance on crime.

Last week we witnessed a major shift in Canadian politics. Conservatives argued the legalization of marijuana was unwanted by the citizens of Canada, Liberals called for legalization and decriminalization. Liberals won office. Here in the U.S., we’re seeing the same debate play out. Our assumption is that whether the Republican or the Democratic party wins in the next election, the use of marijuana, for medicinal purposes and for recreational purposes, will expand to more and more states over time. No matter who wins, locking people up for non-violent drug offenses isn’t helping the drug problem in America, most people think it’s only getting worse. Whether a Republican or a Democratic takes office in 2016, our nation is finally admitting to itself that our policies towards marijuana, the war on drugs and imprisoning non-violent offenders are costly and ineffective. Whoever wins will ultimately need to respond to cultural shifts in our nation to stay in office.

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