Liberal MP Shares His Views On Reform
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s office on Parliament Hill has a corner window that lends itself an unintentional view of the vaulted War Museum. It’s a fitting place, one thinks, for an idealistic champion of social justice to frame his next play. Since winning the election in his home riding in 2015, the rookie MP for Toronto’s vaunted Beaches-East York has reserved a reputation as an unapologetically outspoken public servant. On contentious files like the decriminalization of cannabis, he hasn’t shied away from breaking the party line. For that, he’s earned both ire and admiration, but certainly recognition. On a recent trip to Parliament Hill, Tweed’s Director of Communications, Jordan Sinclair, had the chance to meet with an impassioned Erskine-Smith, who shared his outlook on dissidence, civics and drug policy. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What prompted you to shelve your law career and pursue politics?
There’s a huge gap between how people perceive politics in a negative, distrusting way, and what it ought to be, which is politicians serving a greater public good. As a lawyer, you make an impact on the case before you, and you help your clients. But it doesn’t necessarily benefit the broader public, and I was drawn to those public-interest issues – reducing poverty, climate change, carbon pricing, drug policy. I was really focused in school on political philosophy. That gave me this idea that politics was a noble way of making a difference.
Did the nomination of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader motivate your move?
Certainly, Trudeau coming in and calling for generational change in politics – preaching a ground-up approach to democracy – pushed me to get involved. I ran in the only community that it made sense for me to run it, which is the community that I grew up in and where my parents are teachers, and where I went to school, played baseball, and now live with my wife. I can’t imagine representing another area.
For eight years it seemed any public voice of dissent was ostracized, but you’ve proved the times have (a) changed on Parliament Hill. Do you feel empowered to speak your mind as a member of the Liberal Party?
If all Liberals agreed on every single issue, we wouldn’t be Liberals. No one gets into the business of politics to get to Ottawa and say yes to everything that comes before them, without scrutinizing it, without making sure it’s supported by evidence, and without consulting one’s own constituents. Our prime minister has done an excellent job of defending this idea that we should be voices for our constituents in Ottawa, and not the voice of Ottawa in our constituents.
You’ve come out in favour of the decriminalization of all drugs, something the prime minister has said he doesn’t support. What’s the pitch behind that policy play?
I wrote an article in VICE that pointed to some concrete examples of how we are moving down a much more progressive and sensible drug policy path, with respect to legalizing and regulating marijuana, with respect to opening supervised-injection clinics, allowing doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade heroin to severely addicted Canadians, and restoring harm reduction as a pillar of our drug strategy. My argument is that if you take the idea of harm reduction to its logical conclusion, and you follow the evidence that we are criminalizing people for no reason at all, there’s a better way than the current model of prohibition. My hope is that we can show the Canadian public that a move away from prohibition will work when we implement the regulatory framework for marijuana.
What prompted you to vote for the decriminalization of cannabis in the run-up to legalization?
I voted for the decriminalization of marijuana when we had a motion because I knew legalization would take awhile. We’re many months away – it has to go through second reading, through committee, then third reading, then through the Senate – [so] throughout that time period should we be arresting people for possessing marijuana and shutting down dispensaries? Not to say it’s appropriate to flout the law, but it’s a waste of resources on the other hand to be cracking down on such things.
Conservatives haven’t voiced much of an opposition to legalization. Do you feel there’s going to be a push back from the opposition as we move closer to reform?
There might be, but keep in mind they have moved from their [initial] position quite significantly already. They’ve moved away from a tough-on-crime agenda, with respect to marijuana. The Conservatives seem to favour a ticketing system, which always struck me as a weird idea. If I’m smoking or drinking in a park, and there’s a question of public intoxication, OK you can write a ticket. But if someone’s having a scotch on a Friday night after work, we don’t knock on their door, enter their living room and write them a ticket. We shouldn’t be able to do that for marijuana either. How much fire can they bring to a fight when we say we want to legalize and regulate, and they say they want to be able to write tickets.
Do you think legalization be on the docket if the country didn’t have an established medical regime?
It wouldn’t be nearly as easy of a conversation to have. It’s a conversation people have been forced to have as a result of government’s being confronted with the issue, and having to think about and deal with it. When you have courts recognizing the therapeutic value of marijuana, recognizing there are beneficial uses to it, it’s helpful. That’s furthered things in terms of the stigma associated with the plant.
What are your expectations as the government readies to legalize recreational cannabis?
I hope we stay the course on a progressive policy. I’m a big advocate for a public health approach, so I think there should be limitations on commercial advertising and probably some American jurisdictions didn’t have enough of that conversation. But, and I introduced a petition on this subject, we should allow for homegrowing, whether it’s a limit of four, five, or six plants. If we don’t do that, I think it’ll have been a huge missed opportunity, and will have been the wrong policy choice. And I hope to see down the road expedited pardons for people who have records for simple possession. It’s a shame that criminal records negatively affect young Canadians’ lives, and we should correct that as soon as we can.
← Prev Next →
Leave a comment
other stories you may be interested in
Leading cannabis brands. Together at last.
When Tweed came online in 2014, the plan was to give patients a place to shop for the most diverse set of strains available on the Canadian market...
Fortunato pays homage to the mixtapes of old
Fortunato didn’t think he’d ever rap again when he left Toronto a few years back...
420 Games Founder Blazes A New Trail
Jim McAlpine first came up with the idea for a cannabis-friendly gym 30 years ago while ripping bongs and lifting weights in his parents' garage...