Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must have expected questions about cannabis legalization at his town hall event in Winnipeg on Wednesday night, but he might not have anticipated this one.
In light of the Liberal government's plans to offer some kind of amnesty to Canadians with cannabis possession convictions, Manitoba cannabis advocate Steven Stairs asked: "Would your government be considering pardons for people who are being convicted of trafficking cannabis?
"Small-time drug dealers, pot sales, guy on the corner, whatever you want to call them, but those people are just as peaceful, mostly, as the other people that have been charged, and I don't find it fair that you would exclude them from the pardon system," he said.
Before answering, the prime minister ran through his government's usual rhetoric about cannabis legalization.
"Right now, our young people have far too easy access to marijuana, and we need to change that, because regardless of what you may think of how harmful marijuana may or may not be, we know that the impact on the developing brain is something we want to minimize and avoid," said Trudeau, to applause from the audience of 1,800 Manitobans.
Regulating cannabis sales in the same way as alcohol sales will keep it away from kids, claimed Trudeau.Advertisement
"Think about it, there's no black market for alcohol. No pusher in any stairwell, in any place, is going to ask you for ID before they sell you a joint," he said.
"Secondly, right now people who purchase marijuana are almost inevitably linked into organized crime," said the prime minister, citing a Liberal talking point contradicted by research from the federal justice department.
"That is our approach on marijuana, get the criminal element out of it and keep our kids safer and our communities safer, that's why we're doing this " he concluded before answering Stairs' question.
"Yes, I've said that we will look, after the law has been changed, at pardons for people who have been convicted of possession, but we are not at this time thinking of pardons for people convicted of trafficking or pushing or dealing."
'It's regular, everyday people'
Stairs, who is a legally registered medical cannabis user, told The Leaf News the prime minister's answer to his question was exactly what he expected.
"The reason I asked it, even though people would be upset, is because it has to be asked," he said.
"And it has to be deemed topic-worthy in the eye of the public. The more I ask these questions, the more other people ask these questions, the more it will be deemed relevant by society, and maybe actually stop being stigmatized as a question."
When most people think about drug trafficking, they tend to envision "cartels and guns and violence and all these different things," Stairs said.
"But the reason why I get up there and ask these questions is so people can see that it's not some gangster-looking guy asking, 'Hey, are you going to let me have a pardon?' No, it's regular, everyday people who open dispensaries and try to help their patient friends, and things like that."
Canada's legal regimes for access to cannabis for medical purposes have long been inadequate, added Stairs.
"There are huge, precedent-setting legal arguments that say the access isn't there, so people have been filling that access with their own personal freedoms on the line," he said.
"And granted, I'm not saying that everybody who's been caught for trafficking is a saint, but I'm saying that if you label them all as organized crime and criminals, that's unfair, and frankly it's biased because you're not looking at the actual facts, you're looking at the rhetoric, you're looking at the stigmatization, you're looking at the misinformation, and that's not fair."
Stairs appeared unimpressed by parts of Trudeau's answer to his question, especially the claim that a black market for alcohol doesn't exist.
"That's bogus. Do you know how many people make wine and sell it, beer?" he said.
(Recent data on black market alcohol sales in Canada appear to be unavailable, but a 1997 report by the Mackenzie Institute cites a contemporaneous claim by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario that illegal alcohol accounted for 11 per cent of the province's liquor market.)
Trudeau's statement about organized crime and cannabis also raised Stairs' hackles.
"I think that the only way that they can convince Canadians that there are huge criminal elements involved in cannabis is by giving these one-sided, narrowly focused talking points," he said.
'Maybe some other people will start thinking about it'
Stairs, who said he asked Trudeau about cannabis policy during other public events in 2013 and 2015, outlined his long-term strategy for political activism.
The idea of pardoning people with cannabis possession convictions while refusing pardons to those with cannabis trafficking convictions is "arbitrary," he said.
But by raising the topic, maybe the prime minister would give it some thought, Stairs said.
"Maybe (Public Safety Minister) Ralph Goodale will start thinking about it," he said. "And maybe some other people will start thinking about it. Maybe there will be some lobbying efforts from some organizations out there like the John Howard Society, or something like that, something that's about helping people with pardons and getting back on the straight and narrow."
"I really didn't expect him to answer it and say yes, but the thing is, if he says no now, that's fine. I'm going to keep asking him until he says yes."
Stairs also asked Trudeau how he felt about having a strain of cannabis named after him — Winnipeg-based cannabis producer Delta 9 cannabis offers a variety called "Justin Trudope." The prime minister didn't respond to that part of Stairs' question, and Stairs said he didn't expect him to.
"If I can ask a serious, hard-hitting question and add a little bit of humour on the end of it, I find I get a better answer out of people."