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West End resident Ben Lynh signs a petition to decriminalize marijuana Sept. 9. Sensible BC hopes to collect more than 400,000 signatures to force a provincial referendum. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
West End resident Ben Lynh signs a petition to decriminalize marijuana Sept. 9. Sensible BC hopes to collect more than 400,000 signatures to force a provincial referendum. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Pot advocates hope half a million signatures would force B.C. referendum Add to ...

A campaign to effectively decriminalize marijuana possession in B.C. faces an uphill battle to rally the public at large to a cause strongly supported by a passionate minority, says an expert from the University of British Columbia’s department of political science.

Maxwell Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC, said while there does appear to be broad public support for the decriminalization of pot possession, the Sensible BC campaign still faces a significant challenge in mobilizing the public to take action.

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“It’s got to be more than just a small minority who want it; it has to somehow catch fire with the public,” Prof. Cameron said Monday, the first day of Sensible BC’s 90-day campaign. “There will be a passionate minority that really cares about this, and has the time and the energy to put into it; the question is will they be met halfway by enough of a public that cares to actually carry this thing forward.”

Sensible BC is aiming to collect more than 400,000 signatures – at least 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province’s 85 electoral districts – to force a provincial referendum on a draft bill called the Sensible Policing Act.

That act would amend the BC Police Act to prohibit the use of police resources on enforcing marijuana possession laws, essentially decriminalizing it.

It would not impact laws around trafficking, possession for the purposes of trafficking or cultivation.

Prof. Cameron said the campaign would do well to emphasize that the prohibitionist approach has not worked well and frame decriminalization “as a more rational use of resources and a more thoughtful approach to problems of health and addiction” – arguments the campaign has been vocal on.

Sensible BC spokesman Dana Larsen is quick to note, for example, the cost of enforcing marijuana prohibition.

“Simply in terms of tax dollars, we’re spending $10.5-million a year in B.C. just to charge and convict people for marijuana possession, never mind cultivation and sale,” he said Monday, citing a 2013 study by Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd.

A legally regulated marijuana industry could also bring in massive tax revenues, he added, citing a 2012 study by UBC and SFU researchers that estimated British Columbians spend roughly half a billion dollars on pot each year.

And, “whether or not you want your kids smoking pot, the question is: Do you want to deal with that as a family or as a criminal issue?” Mr. Larsen said.

The long-time legalization activist said he would ultimately like to see marijuana be regulated like alcohol, “but, to begin with, we can stop arresting and charging people for marijuana possession while we figure out how we’re going to get to that fully legalized system.”

At the start of the campaign, more than 1,700 volunteers had signed up to be canvassers, Mr. Larsen said. On Monday, he joined others aboard a campaign bus – dubbed the “Cannabus” – which will serve as a mobile sign-up station over the next three months. The bus started the day Monday near Jack Poole Plaza, near Vancouver’s waterfront, then continued on to the West End.

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