Those looking to shoot darts at Belinda Stronach’s fledgling campaign for the leadership of the federal Conservatives found themselves armed straight off with a good deal of ammunition: she was a failure in university and twice a failure in marriage who doesn’t speak French and who’s never accomplished anything more significant in her 37 years than not screwing up a figurehead nepotism appointment and she had never, prior to last week, spoken publicly about any issue of political substance.

Yet I was kind of rooting for her. If we’re to have a united Conservative Party, my decidedly non-conservative interests may best be served if it’s led by a lightweight like Stronach rather than an imbecileweight like Stephen Harper. And she’s pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage to boot.

Still, I was a little disturbed when she admitted in her announcement speech on Jan. 20 that she had been, in her youth, a criminal. And that, while she had never been caught and punished for her crime, she thought it was entirely justifiable that others should serve jail time and carry criminal records for doing as she’d done.

It ain’t the crime in question that bothers me: she admitted to having smoked pot in high school (though she apparently didn’t stick around university long enough to get invited to any parties), a common enough story, and one I have no problem with. There are very many legal things I can think of that would prejudice me against a person more than smoking pot. In fact, I’d kind of suspect the character of anyone under 70 unhip enough to have passed on the opportunity to see what all the buzz was about.

Which is, of course, the point of the admission. This is political ground well trod over the past 15 years or so, years during which Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Pierre Trudeau, Kim Campbell, Stockwell Day and Arnold Schwarzenegger — to draw an incomplete and arbitrary list of big-name politicos and pseudo-politicos — have admitted to a little reefer madness. Even our current prime minister, the retirement-aged Paul Martin, ‘fessed up to eating some hash brownies his wife had baked.

What’s behind such smirking confessions is that everyone who’s ever attended high school or university remembers, through their own THC-clouded memories, exactly what kind of uptight, towering dweeb took a pass when the joint was passed. And no politician wants to be thought of as that snivelling, allergy-prone Optinerd Prime, so they admit that, like the vast majority of mainstream Canadian adults, they too took a hit from the bong.

Which brings us to the larger point. Pot smoking is benign when compared to tobacco or alcohol or automobile use, and nearly everyone has done it at some point, and it’s no big deal. Which is why, at the very least, simple possession of marijuana should be decriminalized (if not outright legalized). Who better to understand this than a legislator who’s experimented? As Paul Martin told the TV crews in December, “I don’t believe that a young person who is caught with a very, very small quantity for personal use — who is not trafficking — should have a criminal record for the rest of their lives.”

This is not an opinion shared by Stronach. In admitting her own past drug use, she went out of her way to say she doesn’t think possession should be decriminalized. Let’s just phrase this straightforwardly so it’s clear what we’re talking about: Belinda Stronach admits she did something and suffered no ill consequences as a result, but she wants to incarcerate and forever mark the records of others who do the same. This puts her in a class of bald-faced hypocrisy (shared by admitted felon George W. Bush) of the most despicable sort.

One would have to believe that she thinks — despite her protestations to immigrant-family roots and a regular-gal high school education — that there should be one set of rules for those who grew up in the upper, non-
criminal classes with rich, politically connected daddies (like her) and another set of rules for the rest of us who are too poor and criminal and dangerous to have our youthful indiscretions go unpunished.

And in surprising numbers, Canadians are punished for Stronach’s crime. About 1.5 million Canadians have criminal records for simple possession of marijuana. About 1,500 people a year go to jail for possession alone. The law allows a sentence of six months, a fine of $1,000 or both for possession of a small amount of pot for first-time offenders.

There is one easy way I can see for pro-prohibition admitted drug users like Stronach to have their joint and smoke it too, to avoid the appearance of thundering do-as-I-sayism while continuing to argue that criminalization is justified.

Stronach should turn herself in to the local police station and insist on pleading guilty to possession. She should pay her debt to society by serving six months in prison. Then she can come back and run for prime minister with a criminal conviction on her resumé. Maybe then we could take her seriously as a rehabilitated voice for how fair and justified criminalization of marijuana is.

But then, who’d want an ex-con for a PM?

Originally published in Eye Weekly January 29, 2004.

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