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drug reform

A medical marijuana plant is shown at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Seattle.Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

When the televised leadership debate in the British Columbia election campaign turns to law and order issues Monday night, perhaps no one will be listening more closely than Dana Larsen.

The long-time pot advocate and former NDP candidate is hoping the topic of legalized marijuana an issue NDP Leader Adrian Dix addressed on CTV's Question Period over the weekend – will finally get the high-level political discussion he thinks it deserves.

"It's certainly been coming up at all-candidates meetings … but it hasn't become a key issue [with the leaders] yet," he said Sunday.

He hopes the moderator, Jennifer Burke, will change that when the debate is broadcast on every major B.C. television news program, starting at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

"Will you stand up for what the majority of British Columbians want and call upon Stephen Harper to legalize marijuana and decriminalize possession in the meantime?" he said, when asked the question he'd most like to see put to the candidates.

Mr. Larsen, who has been fighting for drug policy reform for 20 years, has been disappointed that the legalization of marijuana has largely been ignored in the campaign so far.

Liberal Leader Christy Clark has long dodged the issue by saying she regards it as a federal matter.

But Mr. Larsen was encouraged to learn that Mr. Dix has at least been thinking about it.

"I favour the decriminalization of marijuana, but that's a federal issue and will be settled in the 2015 election," Mr. Dix told CTV.

Mr. Dix also noted that B.C. is in a difficult position because the State of Washington softened its drug laws last year, legalizing possession of marijuana for recreational use.

And he said the Conservative government's push for tougher drug laws is going to put increased pressure on B.C.'s already strained criminal justice system.

"That's going to increase and hamstring our court system here in B.C., so we're very concerned about that," he said.

Mr. Larsen couldn't agree more. And he said it's high time B.C. took action to reduce those costs by easing marijuana laws.

"I don't think we need to wait to 2015," he said. "I do think it's a federal issue in that ultimately it's a federal law that we're talking about. However … we can [effectively] decriminalize possession by using our jurisdiction over the police."

Mr. Larsen, who unsuccessfully ran for the leadership of the B.C. NDP in 2011 and who was a failed federal candidate in 2008, has proposed legislation that would require police to back off on marijuana possession charges.

"What this law would do is take advantage of our [provincial] jurisdiction over policing, to tell the police to make marijuana possession the absolute lowest priority in British Columbia," he said.

Mr. Larsen filed an initiative petition with Elections B.C. last fall and he intends to start a signature drive in September, which could lead to a provincewide referendum next year.

"If we succeed in getting the signatures we need this fall, then the referendum is scheduled for September, 2014," he said. "Then I would hope that the government of the day would follow the will of the people and enact this law."

Mr. Larsen said he's confident B.C. voters want to see marijuana laws changed.

"Our polling shows about 73 per cent of British Columbians support our [proposed] legislation. And that support is a majority among every political party," he said.

Conservative Leader John Cummins hasn't been talking much about it on the campaign trail, but he did state last year he doesn't buy any of the arguments for legalizing marijuana.

Green Party Leader Jane Sterk, however, has taken a strong stand in favour of change. During the televised leadership debate in 2009, she declared that "the root cause of the gang violence … in British Columbia is directly related to prohibition of substances."

Last week, she said the Green Party wants marijuana and other controlled substances legalized, with sale and distribution controlled by government.