Elections BC approves official petition to decriminalize pot
Marijuana activist Dana Larsen is launching a petition, part of citizen's initiative legislation to decriminalize pot. Photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (The Seattle Times, Erika Schultz)
James Keller, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, July 11, 2013 2:16PM PDT
Last Updated Thursday, July 11, 2013 4:24PM PDT
VANCOUVER -- A British Columbia pot activist has received the green light to press ahead with a petition that, if successful, would force the provincial government to address the question of marijuana reform and could eventually see voters casting ballots on the issue.
Dana Larsen is using the province's unique initiative legislation to propose a law that would effectively decriminalize pot by preventing police from enforcing simple possession laws.
Elections BC announced Thursday that Larsen's petition, which outlines proposed changes to the provincial Police Act, has been approved, giving Larsen and his Sensible BC campaign two months to sign up canvassers and prepare to start collecting signatures on Sept. 9.
To succeed, Larsen must then collect the signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province's 85 ridings by November. That would either force a vote in the legislature or a provincewide, non-binding referendum.
"We've got a pretty good shot at it, I think, but it's very challenging," Larsen said in an interview Wednesday.
"What I am confident about is that if we get on the ballot, we will win a resounding majority in a referendum. We have incredible public support for this."
The push for decriminalization has gained steam in B.C., with several prominent former politicians, including former Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant and former NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh, calling for the legalization and regulation of marijuana. Their group, the Stop The Violence B.C. Coalition, has pointed to opinion polls that suggest a majority of British Columbians agree with them.
But the Liberal government has largely opted to ignore marijuana reform, pointing out that drug laws are in the federal government's jurisdiction. During the most recent provincial election campaign, Premier Christy Clark ridiculed her NDP opponent for even taking a position on the issue.
Larsen's petition, however, could force Clark's Liberals to finally tell voters where they stand.
While neither the petition nor a potential referendum would be binding, the process could send the issue to the provincial legislature for a vote.
B.C.'s initiative legislation, which was successfully used to kill the province's harmonized sales tax two years ago, allows any voter to bring forward proposed legislation in the form of a petition.
If a petition collects enough valid signatures, it is then sent to a legislative committee -- which, in this case, would be dominated by the governing Liberal party.
The committee can either send the petition directly to the legislature for consideration or ask Elections BC to hold a provincewide referendum, which would require both a majority of voters across the province to approve the proposal, as well as majorities in two-thirds of the province's ridings.
Even then, a successful referendum would merely send the proposal back to the legislature, where it could be amended or voted down.
Larsen said it would be difficult for the government to ignore the results of a referendum if a clear majority of voters supported his proposal.
"The Liberals didn't want to get rid of the (harmonized sales tax), either, but they went along with the public on that issue after a referendum," he said.
"It's very challenging for a government to refuse to go along with a referendum, which is the ultimate voice of the people. It would be very undemocratic and unpopular."
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton repeated the province's position that drug laws are within federal jurisdiction and she said the Liberal government does not have an opinion about whether marijuana should be decriminalized.
"This is a Canadian federal law, and we don't have any intention of getting involved in it," she said in an interview.
"If it actually did come forward (with enough signatures on the petition), then we would have to consider the constitutionality of it. I can't tell the police what to do. They make their own operational decisions. It's their obligation to carry out the criminal law."
Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and a member of the Stop The Violence B.C. Coalition, said Larsen's proposal is an interesting approach to addressing federal drug laws that he argues do more harm than good.
"I think it's a very creative way to try and address the issue of cannabis at the local provincial level," said MacPherson.
"It's far from ideal, but it's the best we can do at the moment."
MacPherson said public attitudes toward drug laws are changing in Canada, and even in the U.S., where the "War on Drugs" fuelled tougher laws and stiff penalties, and now several states are moving to decriminalize pot.
He agreed a successful referendum would put significant pressure on the provincial government to act.
"It's significant when a majority of the voters vote on something as substantive as this kind of drug policy issue," he said.
"I think they (the government) would have to think long and hard about how they would treat this sort of democratic process."