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Regarding Resolution 117

Huge Post Warning! This turned into a short essay of over 1500 words. Shorter content to come.

I had a fantastic time at the Convention. And I’ll write about that soon.

I had a less fantastic time reading some of the things that were written about the conference after the fact.

The thing that drew the most ire from the Liberals’ critics was Resolution 117, which passed by an astounding margin during the policy plenary Sunday morning. It’s the resolution that has been most reported since the conference, and whether it’s covered neutrally, somewhat whimsically, or fairly dismissively, the common thread is the reader comments.

It’s a polarizing issue for the press, to be sure. And it’s led to some unexpected revelations, like the fact that the National Post endorses the legalization of marijuana–I honestly did not see that coming. And it’s a polarizing issue for Canadians, too. There’s very little ambivalence displayed in comments threads and on social media (though engagement on the internet is kind of self-selecting in that way). There is vehement support and often derisive dismissal, and sometimes vitriolic attacks.

I’m not going to address the benefits or shortcomings of the resolution–just to challenge a few recurring assumptions being made with regard to the resolution.

On CBC’s Cross-Country Checkup with Rex Murphy this past Sunday, John Ivison, political columnist for the National Post, implied that the youth were the ones who were responsible for the resolution getting pushed through. I hate to call out an established journalist, but his statement was less than correct. Yes, the YLC proposed the resolution, and there were youth who spoke to introduce and support the resolution. But the majority of speakers weren’t from the youth detachment.

One thing that can be said against youth is they’re not always the most responsible. There were many, many hospitality suites, parties, and barhops going on Saturday night. I was a wreck when I rolled into Canada Hall at 8 AM. And there were a lot of youth who were absent. The vast majority of the heads in the hall were silvered.

The vote passed with 77% in favour. There were a few over 1400 votes cast out of a possible total of 3300 (the number of delegates at the conference). It’s been estimated that between 30% and fully 1/3 of the delegates at the conference were youth. Assuming every youth delegate voted in favour of 117, every single youth delegate would have to have been in attendance first thing in the morning for the policy plenary. I can pretty safely say that was not the case.

The resolution may have been proposed by the youth, but I don’t think the votes came from the youth delegation. There simply weren’t the numbers in attendance. It was the delegation as a whole that voted for 117. It wasn’t a subset, like youth. It was the voice of the party.

It’s the majority voice of Canada, too. In the last Angus Reid poll on the subject (2009), 53% of Canadians (that’s significantly more than voted for Prime Minister Harper, by the by) said they were in favour of legalization.

Fact of the matter is, it should not matter whether this is a youth-centric issue or not. If it’s a youth issue, it’s still relevant–maybe not to campaign managers, who would prefer to just ignore the 70% of youth who don’t turn out to elections. But it’s still an issue, and one that is spoken about in no uncertain terms. Perhaps, by addressing the issue rather than pandering to certain demographics within a base, we Libs can jump-start actual political dialogue again.

Cross-Country Checkup is going to get a little more attention here, as things start getting stranger after Ivison signs off.

“The Liberal party is trying to rebuild,” says a truck driver from Ontario. “They’re talking about morality, and yet they throw out.. that they want to legalize marijuana. What is moral about that?” After some time spent on the subject of increased difficulty in crossing the US border, he signs off emphatically with: “I guess they want the youth vote that happen to enjoy some marijuana now and then.”

Starting at the start, yes, we spent no small amount of time talking about morality, particularly social justice. The beautiful thing about the Liberal focus is that we’re looking at morality from the perspective of social justice, the perspective of doing what is most right for everyone involved. If we’re amoral or immoral because we have, effectively, made a value judgement that border relations with the USA might be less important than a bursting penitentiary system or the vast overrepresentation of aboriginal and minority groups in possession charges, then so be it. But let’s look at the definition of morality:

The term “morality” can be used either

  1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    1. some other group, such as a religion, or
    2. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Definition #1 is arbitrary. “Because he said” is not an adequate way for me to define my morality, and a political party that is trying to adopt purely/largely evidence-based policy also cannot subscribe to arbitrary definitions of morality. Definition #2, by contrast, is what we’re going for: under the conditions we currently exist, once the arguments are broken down and the evidence is weighed, there is no alternative rational choice. Again, I won’t enumerate the arguments made by any number of studies and polls and by our own delegates at the convention. But the conclusion is the same. We have standards of individual rights that involve freedom from racism, from persecution; there is no sufficient rational argument to continue the way we have been.

To be fair, I need to swing this pendulum the other way for a moment. A common thing I’ve heard from the pro-legalization coterie, including our fellows at the Biennial, is that billions of dollars would come flooding into the Canadian economy from the legalization and regulation of marijuana. I want to say now that all these projections are about as arbitrary as the morality that says we cannot legalize without any substantive argument. What would the adoption rate be? How expensive would the (presumably) provincial control boards be to run? What’s the infrastructure for production? What would the rate of taxation be? How long after creating the infrastructure and dispensaries and bureaucracy would we finally see a profit from the cost of establishment?

I want to ask everyone who reads this to ignore peoples’ arguments about revenue generation from the regulated sale of legal marijuana. I really do. Because we frankly do not know. What we do know is that there is a significant social issue attached to the criminal status of the drug, and we have a justice and penitentiary system that we need to consider the functional capacity of.

One last thing. It’s no secret that the Liberal party, starting under Trudeau in the late ’70s, have flip-flopped somewhat on the issue of legalization. We tried to bring in decriminalization as recently as 2004, and failed. A caller on Cross-Country Checkup called us hypocritical for drafting and shelving, trying and failing, and then returning to the original premise.

I raised an eyebrow on this one. Trying and failing in a prohibitive social climate or because the American DEA was pressuring us or because the government was defeated isn’t the same as hypocracy. Even if we were taking a different position on the legalization issue now, aren’t we allowed? Are people, over the span of almost thirty-five years, no longer allowed to change their minds?

MP Bob Rae, our interim leader, made this same point in one of his many speeches. The Liberals are a party of rationalism. If there is convincing evidence to support a new point of view, especially when it comes to advancing the cause of social justice, we will support and likely adopt it. We are allowed to change out minds when the facts come out, because to ignore the facts to suit an arbitrary morality is to be irrational, and, therefore, by the definition given above, in fact immoral.

These last thirteen hundred words may or may not have put to rest a couple of assumptions made about what happened with 117 at the convention. And I can only speak to what I saw, read, and heard. But this isn’t just an issue for the handful of pot-smoking youth who might choose to support the party now that we’ve taken a position. It’s become an important social issue, and our vote is supported by a majority of Canadians.

It’s not every day you can say that the popular opinion and the rational argument both support the same conclusion. But we got lucky in choosing this as an issue to debate and vote on. And I think it’s indicative of a change in direction for this party. We’re not going to be bound by the middle any more. Given the chance, we’re going to govern from the centre–and be bold about it.

Trevor LaForce is Secretary for OWNYL. He also writes at his personal blog, spillway(brain).

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