The recent victory in Canada by Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, a landslide triumph that ended nearly a decade of rule by the Conservative Party, promises a significant change in the politics of Canada in a number of policy areas, including a boost in spending to stimulate the economy; raising taxes on the wealthy; and legalizing marijuana.
Stephen Harper, head of the Conservative Party, attempted to use marijuana legalization as a wedge issue against Trudeau in the recent campaign, making the rather bizarre claim that marijuana is “infinitely worse” than tobacco (an estimated 37,000 Canadians die each year from tobacco smoking). His allegation fell flat with the voters and likely helped Trudeau demonstrate the need for new, fresh and more innovative and honest leadership.
Trudeau has long favored the legalization of marijuana, publicly acknowledging his own past use of weed (including an admission of smoking when he was a member of Parliament). Shortly after the recent Liberal Party victory, he announced legalization would move forward as one of his top priorities. We share a common border stretching nearly 4,000 miles, and whatever occurs in the U.S. inevitably has an impact on Canada. It appears our domestic experience with marijuana legalization has favorably impacted attitudes in Canada, and they too are now ready for a tax and regulate regimen.
The First Prime Minister Trudeau
This needed change in Canadian marijuana policy reminds some of us of earlier times when Canada had a far more progressive and tolerant marijuana policy than the U.S., going back to the 1960s and 1970s, when Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was the Prime Minister. Pierre Trudeau served as prime minister from 1968 to 1979, and again from 1980 to 1984. He was a dominant political presence who, with his glamorous wife Margaret Trudeau, was part of the fast-lane crowd during the 1970s, famously partying with the Rolling Stones; hanging-out at then-popular Studio 54 in New York; and, in a strange moment in a Washington Post news article, once publicly invited disillusioned young Americans to visit Canada, promising they would not be harassed if they brought along a couple of joints.
This was during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, when young Americans burning their draft cards and long hair and marijuana smoking were all part of the cultural rebellion that would transform American society and eventually bring that war to an end. Canada, and Pierre Trudeau, were generally opposed to the war, and supportive of U.S. draft resisters (offering them asylum in Canada) and others who were working to stop the killing.
Raising the “Pierre Trudeau Defense”
It was this public invitation to visit Canada that led me to raise the “Pierre Trudeau defense,” when I was busted with a joint entering Canada to give a college lecture in Calgary in the mid-1970s.
I was (obviously) not familiar with the rigors of international travel at the time, and had stuck a joint in the pocket of my sports coat to share with the students when the lecture was over. We usually went back to someone’s apartment after a college lecture, where the students would generally pass around a joint of whatever weed was available on the black market, at prices most students could afford, and frequently it was not high quality – what we might call “ditch weed” today. So I always enjoyed bringing a joint from my own stash – high quality homegrown – to share with the students, to let them experience the better marijuana that was available if one had the right connections on the black market.
As further evidence of my naiveté, I also was wearing a gold marijuana-leaf lapel pin on my sports coat, oblivious to the fact that the marijuana pin might well bring closer scrutiny as I entered the county. I almost made it through Customs without a problem, but at the last minute, one of the officers recognized my pin, and decided to stop me and search my pockets, where he found the joint.
As I was being taken into custody, a group of the students who were meeting me to take me to the lecture saw what was happening, and someone had the good sense to bring the lecture fee that I would have received, to use as bail, so I could get out of custody and deliver the lecture on schedule later that night.
When I returned in a few weeks to go to trial, my old friend Gerry Goldstein, a young Texas criminal defense attorney who was then heading Texas NORML, accompanied me as my attorney. Since we knew possession of a single joint in Canada would bring, at most, a slap on the wrist and a modest fine, we decided to engage in some street theater, and to make it into a show trial, at which we put on the “Pierre Trudeau defense”.
I was never quite sure why Trudeau had made that statement. Perhaps he simply wanted to demonstrate how hip he and his wife were, since they were known to have smoked marijuana with the Rolling Stones at some point. Regardless, it sure sounded like something that might help me justify my actions in Canada, and it would surely make good theater for the media.
So attorney Goldstein first introduced a copy of the Washington Post article into evidence, and then had me take the stand, and under oath, say I admitted bringing the joint into Canada, but insisting that I had done it on the reliance that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had assured me (and other young Americans) that we would not be hassled.
It was obviously not a legal defense, but it did have a certain appeal to the media, and seemed to further NORML’s position that there is nothing wrong with smoking pot.
The judge saw the humor in what we were doing, and allowed us to put on our defense, but then convicted me (on my own testimony), imposed a modest fine, and sent me on my way home, none the worse for wear. It had been exhilarating to challenge the system, and we felt we had successfully pushed the policy envelope by being so out-front and unapologetic about my marijuana smoking.
Busted Again, On the Way Out of the Country
But then things turned ugly. On our way through customs as we were leaving the country, still beaming from the fact that we had pulled-off our legal street theater without harm, the Canadian customs officials found an empty one-gram cocaine vial which I had inadvertently left in my shoulder bag, with trace amounts of cocaine still in the bottle, and I was taken back into custody. Suddenly, this little Canadian joke did not seem so humorous, and especially not to the prosecutor or the judge who had just allowed us to pull-off our stunt in his courtroom.
I was thrown in jail overnight, and the following morning Goldstein arranged for me to plead guilty to the new cocaine charge, pay a larger fine, and finally get out of the country, with a warning that I would never be permitted back into the country. (In fact, I have since been back to Canada on several occasions, so apparently someone saw fit to remove me from the list of banned travelers at some point.)
But all these many years later, when I hear the name Trudeau as the newly elected Prime Minister of Canada, I cannot help but smile as I remember the good-old-days, when a combination of youth and naiveté allowed us to live close to the edge, with little or no fear of the consequences.