The B.C. NDP leadership race got off to a shaky start Wednesday, with a dust-up over whether the first person to declare his candidacy was a paid-up party member.
Marijuana activist Dana Larsen held a news conference to announce his intention to campaign for the leadership. Three hours later, NDP party president Moe Sihota said Mr. Larsen was ineligible because he did not have a membership card.
Mr. Larsen subsequently blamed a clerical error at NDP offices for the mix-up.
He renewed his membership, changed his address and made a donation in November, he said in a news release.
"The donation was processed, however, my address change, and now it seems my membership, were not" said Mr. Larsen.
"Moe Sihota chose to resolve this clerical error through the media rather than contacting me directly. That is highly irregular, " Mr. Larsen said.
Earlier, Mr. Sihota said Mr Larsen may be ineligible even if he buys a membership.
Mr. Larsen was a federal NDP candidate in the 2008 election campaign who stepped down following controversy over his marijuana use.
"Having been deemed ineligible to run federally, that raises the question if he could run provincial," Mr. Sihota said in an interview.
The rules committee for the leadership race is slated to meet next week to set the eligibility requirements. Mr. Larsen may not qualify under those rules, Mr. Sihota said. "He is currently ineligible, and may be ultimately ineligible," he said.
However, Mr. Larsen insisted he could run. "I'm a member in good standing in the NDP, as far as I know," he said. "I make monthly donations on my credit card."
Mr. Larsen also said he voluntarily chose to resign as a federal NDP candidate; he was not disqualified. "As far as I know, I would qualify under any rules the party would set, or under any rules they have set in the past. I cannot imagine any rule they would set that would disqualify me," he said.
"I don't think this is Moe Sihota's decision," Mr. Larsen also said. "I'm not really sure why he is saying that, but it is not up to the party president. It is up to the party to set the rules."
Staff at NDP headquarters confirmed that Mr. Larsen had been a member for a number of years, but had let his annual membership lapse without renewing it.
Mr. Sihota said he expects more leadership candidates to announce their intentions in January. The party is to pick a new leader on April 17 in a system that gives a vote to every member who has been in the party for at least 90 days. Ms. James resigned this month after failing to quell an internal revolt by about a third of the NDP caucus in the legislature.
Those thinking of entering the race are now likely talking to others about their support, signing up new members and putting together funds to finance their campaign, Mr. Sihota said. "That infrastructure has to be in place before anyone announces," he said.
He expects unions to play a diminished role in the leadership choice as a result of the one-member, one-vote system. "The members will determine who to pick," he said.
The list of possible contenders includes MLAs Mike Farnworth, Bruce Ralston, John Horgan and Adrian Dix, and from outside the caucus, federal MP Peter Julian and Sierra Club BC executive director George Heyman.
Mr. Larsen, 39, is currently the director of the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, which provides marijuana to about 2,700 people who have a prescription from a doctor. Mr. Larsen was a candidate for the federal Marijuana Party in an election in 2000 and founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party.
Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Larsen told reporters he had been a member of the NDP for seven years. He said he has a good chance of winning, largely as a result of the one-member, one-vote system. He plans to sign up a substantial number of new members, he said.
"My core constituency is medical cannabis users and people who want to see an end to prohibition, which I think is a lot of people in this province," Mr. Larsen said. "Anybody who believes in this issue is a part of my core constituency."
He had quit the federal campaign because he did not want to distract attention from the campaign of federal NDP Leader Jack Layton, he said. He did not think that running in a leadership race for a provincial party would be a problem.
Mr. Larsen also said he does not have a criminal record but he has been refused admission to the United States. He once told U.S. border officials that he had smoked marijuana. "For some agents, that is enough," Mr. Larsen said, adding that he has not tried recently to enter the U.S. and does not know if he would be stopped.