If British Columbians go to the polls to decriminalize marijuana, they can thank an earlier high-profile referendum for leading the way: that of the harmonized sales tax.
Dana Larsen – a marijuana advocate who has served as editor at Cannabis Culture magazine, opened a medical marijuana dispensary and even run for the provincial New Democratic Party leadership – will begin collecting signatures for his Sensible BC campaign next year. Elections BC has already deemed the issue suitable for referendum and a vote could be held in 2014.
The marijuana referendum might not have happened if B.C. residents hadn't voted to strike down the much-maligned HST last year. "Seeing the anti-HST campaign actually succeed was very inspiring," Mr. Larsen said in an interview this week. He had considered the referendum route before, but said the HST vote was proof "that it actually could be done."
For B.C. marijuana advocates, Mr. Larsen's campaign appears to represent the best hope for decriminalization. Although advocates hailed legalization votes in Washington state and Colorado this week as a sign that Ottawa, too, should amend its policies, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he will not reopen the issue.
In Seattle, the immediate jubilation gave way to doubts. Phones at medical marijuana establishments rang off the hook, courtesy of the confused – such dispensaries don't sell dope. And while it appears possessing marijuana will be legal in Washington on Dec. 6, the U.S. Department of Justice could still intervene.
Mr. Larsen's quest has him touring B.C. communities, garnering support for his campaign. On this day, he answers his phone while in a parking lot in the northern town of Terrace.
The advance push is necessary. When Mr. Larsen and volunteers hit the streets to begin collecting signatures next fall, they will have 90 days to get 10 per cent of registered voters in all 85 B.C. ridings. The same requirements were met for the HST referendum.
Mr. Larsen's proposed legislation is called the Sensible Policing Act. It would amend the B.C. Police Act to decriminalize marijuana possession for adults. Police would be prohibited from using time or resources to arrest people on simple possession of cannabis. The Sensible Police Act would not apply to laws on trafficking or cultivation. Minors caught with marijuana would face the same penalties as they do with alcohol.
Although B.C. is widely viewed as rather liberal when it comes to drug possession, Statistics Canada says more than 3,000 people were charged with possession in the province last year. Municipal police departments, such as Vancouver and Victoria, reported lower rates of marijuana possession per population than many of the province's RCMP detachments.
On the same day that Washington and Colorado voted to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, Ottawa brought in new drug penalties, including mandatory six-month prison terms for growing as few as six plants.
The B.C. referendum would differ from those in the U.S. in that it would only decriminalize. Mr. Larsen, somewhat begrudgingly, conceded the federal government would need to sign off on any plans to regulate and tax.
Part two of Sensible BC's campaign is to call on the federal government to remove cannabis from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, or to give B.C. an exemption so it can regulate and tax.
A poll released by Angus Reid Public Opinion last week found 75 per cent of British Columbians are in favour of regulating and taxing marijuana. Mr. Larsen expressed frustration that provincial leaders aren't representing the will of their constituents.
When asked this week if she supports a marijuana referendum, B.C. Premier Christy Clark said she would leave it up to Ottawa since drug policy is normally federal jurisdiction – though she certainly hasn't shied away from weighing in on federal matters in the past, such as the Northern Gateway project.
Members of Ms. Clark's caucus, though, expressed their support for a shift in marijuana policy. Kash Heed, a former police chief, has said legalization and taxation are needed to fight organized crime. The B.C. bud industry is estimated to be worth $6-billion to $8-billion.
John Rustad, another member of Ms. Clark's Liberal caucus, said this week B.C. should pursue the regulation and taxation route.
"I get that it is federal jurisdiction, but there is … revenue going to organized crime just for marijuana, and that to me is just wrong," he said. "It's time that we have a serious debate in British Columbia and consider going in that direction."
Aaron Pickus, spokesman for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, said the mayor believes the war on drugs failed and the time was right to legalize, as did all members of city council.
"I've heard the mayor say if every politician who's ever smoked pot voted to legalize it, it would be legal in an instant," Mr. Pickus said.
What happens next in Washington is unclear. A year-long rule-making process is set to begin on Dec. 1. Licensed stores likely won't open until late 2013, though the U.S. Department of Justice could sue to prevent that from happening. That could mean when marijuana is decriminalized Dec. 6, there won't be anywhere legal to purchase it.
That hasn't stopped some people from trying, the excitement of legalization perhaps overtaking common sense. Warren Thompson, manager of Seattle-based medical marijuana dispensary Have a Heart CC, said the phone hasn't stopped ringing since the vote results came in.
"Wednesday was pretty funny," he said with a laugh. Customers would walk into the dispensary and immediately walk back out when they realized it wasn't a store. "It's a common misconception at this point."
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria