Matt Mernagh—the man who very nearly made weed legal in Canada—is challenging Robbie Ford for the mayor of Toronto. We talked to him about it.
Is Toronto ready to take the reins from a crack aficionado and hand them to a pothead? Maybe. Photos by Victoria Polsoni.
Last week, I reported that a man named Al Gore had entered the running to become the Mayor of Toronto. Unfortunately, over the past few days it has been made clear that the Al Gore who used to ghostride the whip with Bill Clinton in the White House is not the same Al Gore who will be trying to clothesline dear ol’ Robbie Ford off of his cracked out pedestal. Inconvenient truther or not, as of today there are at least 21 people running for the mayor of Toronto and it’s only January 10th. One of those candidates is Matt Mernagh, a guy who I interviewed last year for his very notable accomplishment of nearly making weed legal in Canada.
Given the already farcical spectacle that municipal politics in Canada’s largest city became sometime between the news that Rob Ford’s crack tape existed, and the confirmation that Rob Ford’s crack tape exists, I wasn’t sure if Matt was serious about running for mayor or not. But I was curious nonetheless, so I gave Mr. Mernagh a shout and we talked about his political ambitions.
VICE: Why did you decide to run for mayor?
Matt Mernagh: To change the mayoral personality discussion everyone is bogged down in to a political one. My skills as a cannabis advocate are transferable to the mayor's office and when you understand the true responsibilities the mayor has—they aren't too much of stretch for what I am currently doing.
My skills speaking to the largest voting block—the non-voter—will really help me get votes where other candidates see none. I'm the non-voter voter candidate! Since announcing the amount of people who told me they've never voted before, but they're voting Mayor Mernagh, has been enough of a reason for me to run. More people voted for cannabis legalization in Colorado than voted for President Obama. So my thinking is a pot person might be able to bring people to the polls who otherwise might not vote. Eight days into the campaign, Ford is talking cannabis.
Why is being a weed smoker better than a crack smoker?
Cannabis makes people productive, peaceful and creative while crack heads are angry, loud, sketchy types with very poor interpersonal skills.
Right. What do you want to see changed in Toronto?
Nothing drastic. A friendly city with shiny happy people who are led by a mayor who listens to residents, city staff, counselors, and most importantly is a visionary consensus builder.
How easy is it to run for mayor?
Too easy. Typical elections require a candidate to have nomination signatures. Much to my shock the municipal election doesn't require any signatures from residents. We planned to use a New Year's Eve party to get needed signatures. This simple step (50-100 signatures) would add credibility to the process. The ballot is going to be a legal sized sheet of paper by the time this is done.
What are the essential principles of your platform?
Number one: The provincial funding shortfall our city experiences is enormous and it's everywhere from social housing, public transit, road maintenance, to even how we vote. We're a neglected city provincially, except during election years. We shovel gas, sales, and provincial income taxes into the provincial coffers at such a large rate that respected political thinkers have pondered a Province of Toronto. I am not going this far, but I think we need a discussion on this funding imbalance. Mayor Mernagh will bring home the cash because without it we can't reduce local taxes.
Number two: Reigning in our biggest expense, the Toronto Police Service budget. Twenty-four cents of every dollar our city spends goes to what is referred to as Toronto emergency services. The biggest slice of that spending is spent on policing, but no one wants to even talk about it. For every dollar Toronto earns twenty-four cents is spent on protection! Until we reign in our biggest expense we can't reduce residential and business taxes or freeze the land transfer tax.
How serious are you about actually competing in this race? Because you sound pretty serious.
To me and my team, we are as serious as the candidates who are labeled contenders by big media. One of our biggest advantages is people don't take my work seriously and look what happened last time: the government almost lost their laws on marijuana prohibition. My work demonstrates when I do something, I am very serious.
My campaign manager Chris Goodwin helped revive Ontario's Freedom Party. In the last provincial election the party under his leadership had candidates in all but one riding. That’s a huge and admirable grassroots political undertaking. He has a great grasp on campaigning within the law, which Rob Ford and his campaign team has had trouble with in the past.
Tracy Lamourie is a campaign manager who most recently managed an Ontario NDP campaign in 2011, and she's been involved in all level of politics for twenty years. Like Goodwin and myself, she's much more than just a cannabis advocate and has skills to market a cohesive political message.
Photographer Victoria Polsoni made me look very mayoral in my first campaign photo shoot and image is more than half the battle… To be the mayor you have to look like a mayor.
Then there are the skills and talents of the many people who have come forward to volunteer on our campaign. By end of January we'll have a list of 100 names!
Did you know there's already a neo-nazi and a man named Al Gore in the running? What do you have that they don't?
We actually anticipated this more than six months ago when we first began plotting our campaign. We knew I was going to get lumped into this category and it was the key reason I wasn’t going to run. My friends believed in me and we have decided we are going to come closer than any non-established candidate has gone before in a municipal campaign.
The team we are assembling is going to make me very competitive on the campaign trail, but we are going to be hampered by funding compared to the so-called contenders. Unlike the other fringe candidates you mentioned, we actually intend to campaign like we know how to do—and issue civic policies just like established candidates.
Contrary to popular thought, we are running a civic campaign that just happens to be fueled by cannabis.
What have you learned so far from your brief political career?
City staff do most of the heavy lifting, while the mayor is mostly a figurehead at city hall. The mayor is really only responsible for casting a tie breaking vote and assigning counselors to boards. A mayor technically does not have to attend a single meeting unless required to cast a tie-breaking vote. Mayors become very important when there's an emergency or not one—because it's their job to declare something an emergency or not.
How do you plan on spreading your campaign philosophies?
By using the grassroots campaign methods of Ron Paul, Hunter S. Thompson and the NDP. The Killin’ Time Band is writing our campaign theme song jingle. Look what Aimee Allen's “Ron Paul Revolutionary Theme Song” did for Ron Paul.
Digital media is awesome at spreading a message and my team and I have excellent experience at creating online media that is engaging. When it comes to digital campaigning, we're going to be the team to beat. If we establish a digital dominance and achieve modest funding, we could be serious contenders in the fall.
We're also going to do the good ole fashion walk and drop. I love walking Toronto neighborhoods! We need to raise the funds to leaflet neighborhoods with campaign literature and then follow up with a door knocking campaign. Standing at subway entrances meeting the voter –used by the NDP with their leader in the Toronto Centre by election—will be employed when it's much warmer. I'll be attending more civic functions and social gatherings. Invite me!
What can we expect from 2014's mayoral race?
The candidate who raises $1.3 million in campaign funding (the maximum amount that a Toronto mayoral candidate is allowed to raise) will be the winner unless my grassroots campaign is hugely effective. Candidates who spend the maximum allowed in an election are often—but not always—the winner. The politician getting the media mayor push now isn't going to be the same person the political elites and media are campaigning for in the final days of fall.
Well, good luck, man!