Debt, decreasing job prospects and doobies were on the minds of high school students questioning politicians at Wednesday’s federal election forum.
The loudest reaction from the crowd at F.H. Collins came when one student asked Conservative incumbent Ryan Leef, Liberal candidate Larry Bagnell, NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson and Green candidate Frank de Jong what their positions were on legalizing marijuana.
The biggest surprise of the forum came from Ryan Leef, who appeared, during the 60 seconds he had to answer the question, to support decriminalization.
“I don’t think that Canadians in minor possession of marijuana should be caught up in the criminal justice system, and this is coming from a former police officer,” Leef said. “I don’t think we should be criminalizing Canadians for minor possession, plain and simple.”
As things stand, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana is treated as a lesser, summary conviction, while possession of larger amounts is treated as a more serious, indictable offence.
But this summary conviction is still dealt with by the courts, and can carry a maximum penalty of a fine of $1,000 and six months in jail.
When the News asked Leef to clarity his comment, he changed his position, essentially saying that he supported the status quo. “I’m in favour of ensuring that minor possession of marijuana is not treated as a criminal indictable offence,” said Leef. “It should be, in my opinion, a summary conviction matter.”
Leef went on to suggest, incorrectly, this would “effectively equate to a ticket.” While this isn’t true, Conservatives have toyed with the idea of allowing police to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana. In March, Justice Minister Peter MacKay told the National Post the idea was still being considered. The Conservatives don’t appear to have publicly broached the idea since then.
On stage, Leef was quick to pivot to one of his party’s familiar responses to the Liberal’s plan to legalize the drug, saying that pot should not be the focus of this election.
“Our priorities shouldn’t be, for Canadians, legalizing marijuana. Our priorities should be giving you an education, a job, a healthy and active lifestyle,” he said.
Bagnell supported his party’s promise to legalize marijuana.
“There will be great taxes going to the government that we can use for post-secondary education,” Bagnell said. “This way the proceeds from crime will no longer go to the mafia, they’ll go to the government to provide services for you.”
Atkinson drew on her experience as a lawyer to explain her party’s stance to decriminalize the drug.
“I’ve been a lawyer in this town for 15 years and have seen way too many people get caught up in the system for smaller amounts of pot,” she said.
“What that means is you have to look at the overall expenses, about what it means to engage a police officer, Crown prosecutor, defense council, court time, for smaller amounts,” she said.
De Jong said the Green Party has advocated for the decriminalization of marijuana for years.
“So many people were tied up in courts for something that doesn’t kill you. Cigarettes kill 30,000 Canadians every year whereas marijuana doesn’t kill anyone…. It’s backwards.”
Aside from the question about drugs, students asked about the amount of debt they’ll face after leaving a post-secondary education and the kind of housing and job prospects they’ll find after graduating.
“I want to make sure that when you graduate school, you have a choice,” Leef said.
That means continuing to fund programming at Yukon College and making sure education and training matches the available jobs that are out there, he said.
The Green Party, de Jong pointed out, is the only one that has promised to get rid of college and university tuition completely.
“Yes Mr. Leef, young people have a choice, but only if they’re wealthy enough.”
Bagnell pointed to his party’s pledge to invest in First Nations education and promised other education-related announcements were on the way.
This is far from the last time these four will see each other ahead of the election on Oct. 19.
The next candidates’ forum is on Oct. 6 and is being hosted by the Yukon Conservation Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
Contact Ashley Joannou at