On Jan. 23, Dana Larsen spent his afternoon in UVic’s Student Union Building speaking about pot to an audience that no doubt consisted of a few more empty chairs than he would have liked to see. This has become a typical day for Larsen in his capacity as the face of Sensible B.C., a campaign to reform B.C.’s cannabis laws through a provincial referendum. Larsen, 41, has travelled across B.C., speaking at events both large and small as he promotes his campaign.
Larsen has dedicated his life’s work to cannabis law reform. He was politically active as a student at SFU and, upon graduation, worked with Marc Emery, a prominent marijuana activist, at the magazine Cannabis Culture. He was involved with the Marijuana Party until he joined the NDP in 2003. In 2010, he ran for the leadership of the provincial NDP and received 2.7 per cent of the vote.
Sensible B.C. aims to implement something called the sensible policing act. This act would effectively decriminalize possession of cannabis in B.C. by redirecting police personnel and resources away from targeting cannabis possession. Activities like cultivation, trafficking and driving under the influence would remain subject to current policing and penalties. Minors in possession of cannabis would be treated as though they were in possession of alcohol.
The second part of the proposed act calls for the full legalization of marijuana in B.C. while recognizing that to do so would require some level of support from the federal government as the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act falls within federal jurisdiction.
For B.C. to legalize marijuana, the federal government would need to either legalize cannabis or create an exception for B.C. According to Larsen, this could be done through Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which allows for a person or “class of persons” to be designated exempt.
Both decriminalization and legalization would prevent people from facing criminal charges for cannabis possession. Legalization would involve the government in the regulation and taxation of the substance, while decriminalization would not.
The sensible policing act would mandate that the provincial government establish a commission that would hold hearings to study how B.C. should implement a taxed and regulated system if allowed to do so by the federal government.
Larsen voices few concerns about whether or not his initiative would pass if B.C. residents vote on the proposal. A 2012 poll by the research firm Forum found that 76 per cent of British Columbians favour either legalization and taxation of marijuana (52 per cent) or decriminalization of small amounts (24 per cent). Eleven per cent of British Columbians are content with the status quo, while 12 per cent support increasing penalties.
What Larsen sees as the real obstacle to implementing the sensible policing act is collecting the required number of signatures to compel the government to hold a referendum. Though eight initiative applications have been approved by Elections B.C. since 1995, only the initiative to repeal the HST has made it through the entire process.
For an initiative to go to referendum, it must be checked by Elections B.C. to ensure that it is clearly written and falls within provincial jurisdiction. Advocates must then collect signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters in every provincial electoral district within a 90-day period. Sensible B.C. is planning to collect signatures between September and November of 2013 in the hopes of prompting a referendum in 2014. To gain an advantage, Sensible B.C. is asking supporters to register online so that they can be easily contacted once the campaign begins to collect signatures.
There has been debate about whether or not B.C. has the capacity to decriminalize cannabis without the federal government’s support. In a recent exchange with Cannabis Culture’s Jeremiah Vandermeer, B.C.’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond responded, “Police are constitutionally required to enforce the rule of law. Until and unless Canadian law is changed, the production, sale and use of marijuana is currently illegal (controlled federal legislation), and our police have a responsibility to enforce criminal laws for the good of all British Columbians.”
However, by approving the sensible policing act as an initiative, Elections B.C. indicated that they felt it fell within provincial jurisdiction. In response to a question from a member of the audience about the controversy, Larsen said, “Stephen Harper could sue British Columbia, go to court and fight us. I say, bring it on.”
In order for any initiative to collect the required number of signatures, the proponents need a sizeable volunteer base. Sam Vekemans, the local volunteer co-ordinator for Sensible B.C., asked that anyone interested in volunteering like the Facebook page Sensible BC – Victoria to stay updated.