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BC Ready to Experiment with Pot Reform: Poll

Legalization could reduce violence and lower the deficit, but advocates hear only 'deafening silence' from leaders.

By Allison Griner, 20 Apr 2013, TheTyee.ca

420day.jpg

420 celebration at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by Clayton Perry via Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

Dr. Evan Wood has witnessed first-hand the violent consequences of an illegal drug trade.

In 2009, three gunshot-wound patients were wheeled into Wood's emergency room at Vancouver General Hospital, all victims of gang violence. Wood had to ask himself: why? As he began to pore over research about organized crime, he discovered how central the marijuana trade was to funding gangs around British Columbia.

Stirred to arms, Wood and a coalition of academics and professionals founded Stop the Violence BC which has been lobbying for the taxation and regulation of the marijuana industry.

Despite high-power support -- from eight B.C. mayors, four former provincial attorney generals and a handful of municipalities -- Wood is still waiting for provincial politicians to tackle marijuana as a serious issue. So far, he's heard nothing but a "deafening silence coming from the political leadership."

Acceptance reaching a 'tipping point'

Yet a majority of British Columbians would welcome testing out marijuana regulation. In a recent poll commissioned by Stop the Violence BC and conducted by Angus Reid, 73 per cent of British Columbians responded favourably to conducting a research trial looking at the impacts of a government-sanctioned cannabis retail establishment for adult recreational cannabis users.

Forty-four per cent of respondents also said that mandating such a research trial would improve their opinions of the political party responsible. Only 12 per cent said their opinions would worsen.

Given that level of support, Wood sees marijuana reform as no "partisan thing." He hopes that, during this provincial election, party politics can be laid aside for what he sees as a popular cause: legalizing marijuana.

"In an area that's been a quagmire, it would be incredibly welcome to see all political parties to turn around and say, 'Look, we acknowledge the unintended consequences of cannabis prohibition,'" he says, referring to the violence and health risks involved in the illegal trade.

Wood maintains he is a "very anti-drug person," but he says the social, economic and health benefits of legalizing marijuana outweigh the risks of today's underhanded cannabis trade.

The challenge for Wood and his organization -- and the politicians of British Columbia -- is how to define what a regulated, legal marijuana industry would look like.

Dana Larsen claims to be one of the few people to have attended every single 420 rally in Vancouver, since the first marijuana rally happened on April 20, 1995. A self-proclaimed "fount of marijuana information," Larsen remembers how the city's yearly cannabis festival started with only a "dozen nervous protesters in Victory Square."

For this year's rally-- Larsen's 18th -- he expects attendees to number in the tens of thousands. Marijuana's acceptance, he says, has grown steadily. Its popularity right now marks a "tipping point."

"It's unprecedented on the planet to have that openness just for one day out of the year. It's very special thing to see this kind of openness and tolerance and that, with 20,000 people down there selling marijuana, it's the most peaceful, happy, friendly event that you've ever seen," Larsen says.

A sensible solution?

Larsen is angling for marijuana to be accepted for more than just one day out of the year. Larsen launched a campaign called Sensible BC to decriminalize marijuana once and for all.

But Sensible BC faced a jurisdictional obstacle: the laws criminalizing marijuana are federal, but law enforcement is under the province's control.

So instead of aiming for all-out legalization -- a task which would require overturning sections of Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act -- Larsen decided to settle for change at the provincial level. Sensible BC proposes an amendment to British Columbia's Police Act that would force law enforcement to de-prioritize marijuana as a crime, essentially decriminalizing the drug.

"They would have to spend no resources for charging, searching or arresting anybody for marijuana possession," explains Larsen.

Larsen admits this compromise is not ideal, but he sees it as a "first step" towards greater acceptance and legalization of marijuana.

"All we can do now is tell the police not to enforce certain things," he says. "We don't want a free-for-all where suddenly everyone can grow as much marijuana as they want, first thing. That would cause a lot of problems, and the public wouldn't support it. So we start by decriminalizing possession."

Larsen's policing proposal, however, faces a provincial government that has so far been unresponsive to marijuana reform. Premier Christy Clark has previously announced that she intends to the leave the cannabis debate to the federal government.

Clark's silence "confuses" prominent pot advocate and Green Party MLA candidate Jodie Emery. For her, this is "an issue that should be changing the debate" in the upcoming provincial election.

"We now have marijuana legally on our border, a 40-minute drive from downtown Vancouver," Emery says, referring to the recent legalization of cannabis in Washington State. "There's a bunch of legal marijuana-users running around with legal marijuana in their hands, so we need to talk about that."

Emery dismisses the notion that the province cannot get involved in marijuana reform, that the issue is solely federal.

She cites the premier's crusades to save British Columbian coast guard stations and her intervention in oil-pipeline debates as issues that also technically fall under federal jurisdiction.

Furthermore, she argues, the province could save a wad of cash by not investigating, arresting and prosecuting cannabis cases. With legalization, regulation and taxes, she anticipates the province could earn money that is currently being spent illicitly.

"The question that needs to be answered is: who's going to be supplying [marijuana]? Is it going to be gangs, or is it going to be good Canadians?" she says.

Washington state's marijuana model

When it comes to implementation of marijuana reform, however, even proponents are wary. Tax levels, licensing, age limits and advertising rules would all have to be negotiated under a system of legalized marijuana. According to Larsen, this has instilled "fear" into some marijuana advocates.

"I have gotten comments from people who say they only support decriminalization, or they only support legalization," he says. "Those who are afraid of legalization usually perceive it to mean that there is going to be a corporate monopoly and the only marijuana available would be some kind of genetically modified, low-quality plant sold by Monsanto."

Larsen isn't too worried, though. He believes that competition between a legal marijuana market and an underground one would push the legal weed to be of higher quality and lower price. He also envisions a legal marijuana market where individual growers and larger vendors could work openly, side-by-side.

For inspiration, Larsen looks south, to Washington State's marijuana model. In 2012, Washington voters approved a measure to place the sale of recreational marijuana under the control of the state's Liquor Control Board. Larsen believes a similar system could work for British Columbia.

"I believe the way we regulate wine works well for marijuana. They're quite comparable. Like wine, marijuana users prefer to try different kinds," says Larsen. "The wine model where you can brew a limited amount of wine in your own house for your own use, and where there are both small-scale and large producers who produce wine, would work well for marijuana."

But Stop the Violence BC's Wood warns that comparing liquor and cannabis regulation ignores the public health side of the debate. In the United States, Wood says, alcohol regulation does not employ "a public health approach."

"You can go into a 7-11 and buy a four-litre jug of no-name vodka for 10 bucks. Even in British Columbia, there's data to show that increased density and privatization of liquor sources has had a negative impact, in terms of alcohol-related harm," he says. "The U.S. discussion is just to treat this like alcohol, and already they don't do a great job of regulating alcohol."

What Wood's organization aims for is "a type of marijuana regulation that would really put public health and safety goals first, even if that curtailed some of the libertarian views of having cannabis use wherever they wanted."

Washington State's taxation strategy, however, does intrigue Wood. Part of the state's tax revenue from cannabis sales is earmarked for substance abuse prevention and education.

Wood hopes that British Columbia will ultimately implement a similar measure. He hopes education, along with legalization, can help strip marijuana culture of its "rebellious" image -- an image that not only attracts gangs, but youths too.

"The issue is that the very illegality of cannabis creates a 'forbidden fruit' phenomenon among young people," he says. "I imagine an entirely different world where such a big deal isn't made about it."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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