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BC Politics

A Chance to Change BC's Pot Laws

This fall, Sensible BC launches an ambitious initiative to decriminalize marijuana.

Bill Tieleman 6 Aug

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

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Dana Larsen, director of Sensible BC: 'We've shifted the debate from the federal government to what the B.C. government can legally do.'

"Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use." -- US President Jimmy Carter, Aug. 2, 1977

It simply makes no sense that thousands of British Columbians face a criminal record each year for simple possession of marijuana.

And it's even crazier that the number of cannabis drug offences reported by police in B.C. jumped from 11,952 in 2002 to 16,578 in 2011.

These government statistics mean that even as marijuana has become increasingly socially acceptable, more people are being arrested in B.C., charged with cannabis possession offences and getting criminal records.

Amazingly, this province has seen marijuana possession charges more than double between 2005 and 2011, from 1,787 charges to 3,774.

Those charged don't include marijuana dealers, importers, exporters or growers -- just people found with small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

It's time to follow the example of Colorado and Washington state and end the persecution by supporting a B.C. citizens' initiative to decriminalize marijuana.

But the Sensible BC campaign that starts Sept. 9 won't succeed if British Columbians -- who polls show overwhelmingly support decriminalization -- don't get involved and force politicians to act.

A difficult task ahead

Sensible BC director Dana Larsen said in a Friday interview he is optimistic about their chances but strongly urged those who agree to volunteer as canvassers.

"The odds are way better now than when we started," Larsen said. "We have 600 canvassers signed up in the first few weeks but we need more."

A successful initiative requires the signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters in each of B.C.'s 85 ridings in 90 days -- about 312,000 in total.

"The odds are way better now than when we started," Larsen said. "We have 600 canvassers signed up in the first few weeks but we need more."

Larsen is counting on some of the 56,000 Facebook friends Sensible BC has to go out canvassing and is calling B.C.'s 1.4 million landlines twice to find supporters, as well as working a 17,000-person email list.

But the province's initiative process is extremely challenging. Only Fight HST's initiative has succeeded since initiatives were introduced in 1995.

Larsen said that big cities present the toughest obstacle.

"I feel better about the rural areas -- we really have to grow in the densely populated urban areas like Surrey and Vancouver," he said, because voters must sign the petition for their own riding only or they are disqualified.

Sensible BC has already succeeded in other ways, Larsen pointed out.

"We've shifted the debate from the federal government to what the B.C. government can legally do," he said, adding: "The Washington and Colorado marijuana referenda passing are huge."

Larsen confident of victory

And Larsen points out those who doubt Sensible BC's proposal can work that B.C. has effectively decriminalized a surprising list of things before, despite federal opposition: ownership of unregistered long guns; injection drug use at Vancouver's Insite and impaired driving.

The provincial government simply stopped enforcing the Long Gun Registry before the Conservative government abolished it; it won court battles against the Conservatives when they tried to terminate the Insite safe injection; and it toughened drinking and driving laws but moved the majority of charges to B.C. laws outside of the Criminal Code of Canada.

Sensible BC also notes that Elections BC has approved the initiative's proposed legislation to decriminalize marijuana.

"Elections BC rejected the first four drafts of our legislation," Larsen said. "They've said it's now legal. At $50 per application, it's the cheapest legal advice available!"

That is partly why Larsen says B.C. can decriminalize marijuana possession by simply ordering police not to enforce the law.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening right now, with marijuana possession arrests up significantly since Stephen Harper's Conservative government took power in 2006. And that's despite Vancouver police reducing the city's number of charges.

But Larsen is confident of eventual victory, pointing out that polling shows that even 57 per cent of Conservative voters support decriminalization.

Marijuana will be decriminalized in British Columbia -- but it could happen a lot sooner if enough citizens support the Sensible BC campaign and sign the initiative petition.  [Tyee]

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