Geoff Plant has felt for years that the prohibition of marijuana is wrong. Now that the former B.C. attorney-general is out of government, he has decided it's time to push for the legalization of the drug.
“I have always had a problem with the idea that the state should criminalize an act which is essentially no more complex than putting a couple of seeds in your back yard, waiting a while and then, when something grows, you put it in your pocket, you chew it or you smoke it,” Mr. Plant said.
Last week, Mr. Plant joined three former NDP attorneys-general to support a campaign against federal legislation that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for minor, non-violent marijuana-related offences.
The campaign, backed by police officers, B.C. public health officers and the current and four former Vancouver mayors, calls for the federal government to regulate and tax marijuana, rather than prohibit it.
Mr. Plant was not a stranger to controversy when he was attorney-general from 2001 to 2005 in the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell.
He had a reputation as a moderate in the Campbell caucus. But the B.C. Law Society censured him after he closed courthouses and cut legal aid by 40 per cent in 2002. First nations leaders didn’t trust him after he led the debate on the province’s referendum on treaty rights.
However, when he was asked about the thorny issue of legalization after a Senate committee in 2002 had recommended that the drug be sold like tobacco or liquor, Mr. Plant sidestepped the controversy.
“This is a matter for the federal government. It is not a matter on which the government of British Columbia has a position and not a matter on which I have an opinion,” he told a Vancouver newspaper.
Times have changed. Mr. Plant was asked in November by Evan Wood, director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, to lend his voice to the drug campaign organized by a coalition called Stop the Violence. The coalition was set up in response to gang-related violence associated with the drug trade.
Dr. Wood has an international reputation based on his ground-breaking research related to HIV and drug addicts. He was one of the founders of Insite, the supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Dr. Wood is also associated with St. Paul’s Hospital, and Mr. Plant is chair of the board of directors of Providence Health Care, which runs the hospital.
Dr. Wood said he came into contact with Mr. Plant through his work at St. Paul’s. “I said to him, ‘What do you think about this?’ He said he totally agreed, and he would be willing to go on the record,” Dr. Wood said.
Mr. Plant was so enthusiastic about efforts to reform marijuana laws that he made the suggestion that other attorneys-general should be contacted to see if they would add their voices to the call for reform. He thought the voices of four former attorneys-general would maximize the impact of his endorsement.
“What has happened, in my view, is that increasingly the prohibition of cannabis is not just an ineffective policy,” he said, “but is having the effect of increasing certain harms, as organized crime increasingly relies on the cannabis trade to support its activities, to make huge profits and to fight with each other with guns increasingly in public over their market share.”
The problems have gotten worse over the past decade, which is why the campaign is timely, he said.
“And that’s why when they approached me and asked me if I would agree to lend my name in support of [the campaign] I was happy to do so," Mr. Plant said.
He was impressed with the Stop the Violence campaign. “They’re organized, they have built a research base, they are taking the time and trouble to try to mobilize public opinion,” he said. “I was flattered they would ask me, they would think my voice would matter.”
Despite Mr. Plant’s role in the right-leaning B.C. Liberal government, his response did not surprise Dr. Wood. “I am more surprised when I hear people say they think the current system is working,” he said.
“In Victoria, what politicians will tell you off the record, in terms of their beliefs and understanding of issues, and what they say on the record are two very, very different things,” Dr. Wood said.
Around 12,000 people in B.C. were charged annually with possession of marijuana while Mr. Plant was attorney-general. The number has increased since he was replaced in 2005. In 2010, 15,638 people in B.C. were charged, Statistics Canada has reported.