Dana Larsen spearheads a new initiative to decriminalize

By Amie Gravell

Decriminalization: Shuffling descriptions of criminality and shuffling perceptions of criminality.
I first heard about the Sensible BC campaign from Dana Larsen when he spoke at the 13th Cannabis Convention at UVic. I came into marijuana advocacy and activism through a deep desire to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and have traditionally opposed the idea of decriminalization in lieu of legalization.
There are plenty of reasons to support legalization instead of decriminalization. Decriminalization doesn’t address the most negative aspects of prohibition—organized crime, the continuing illegality of production and supply, or the subjugation of growers. Legalization of marijuana is vastly preferable.
But if legalization is the dream, it doesn’t always seem attainable. I keep telling myself it has to be legal within ten years, but I know many people that have been thinking that same thing for the past few decades. We’ve come close before, and yet marijuana remains illegal—but not in the same way as it always was.
The legalization of medical marijuana has increased the visibility of marijuana users and has provided a safe venue for people to stand up and start busting those stoner stereotypes, particularly that marijuana makes you less productive and unsuccessful. As medical marijuana users have infiltrated the public sphere, public opinions of marijuana use and marijuana users have improved. Head shops are thriving, dispensaries are operating in cities across Canada, and while we have a long way to go, we have come a long way.
Medical legalization has given the marijuana community a legitimate, safe voice for advocacy and activism, however, it has changed the way we advocate and the language we use. The freedom medical marijuana users have to advocate for marijuana has contributed to a dearth of medicinal advocacy and somewhat of a void of recreational advocacy. Recreational users (to appropriate a Nixonian term) are the silent majority of marijuana users and likely always will be—occasional tokers will always outnumber daily users (medicinal or otherwise). Though there will always be people who will never admit to using marijuana publically for a host of reasons, all of which are valid for them. If recreational personal use were decriminalized, the number of voices to publically call for marijuana legalization would increase exponentially.
Our movement has become somewhat disjointed by the legalization of medicinal marijuana. There is a growing polarity between medicinal users as “legitimate” and recreational users as “illegitimate,” when our end goals are the same—legalization of marijuana for all and an end to the astoundingly ineffectual and costly war on drugs. Anything that can allow recreational users something of the same safe voice that medical marijuana users have will help us unify and fight for our common cause together, more effectively.
I have opposed the idea of decriminalization as an action proposed by governments, mostly because I fear that progress will stymie there and full legalization will never happen. However, the idea of decriminalization as a result of community action is different. Forcing the provincial government to decriminalize is a far cry from accepting the government’s shrill compromise of decriminalization.
Marijuana is something that doesn’t need to hide in the dark. It has been forced to by prohibition and the more marijuana users we get out into the public, it seems, the better public opinion of marijuana gets.
I interviewed Dana Larsen recently about the Sensible BC campaign, and intend to volunteer as much as I can to ensure the initiative’s success.
To start off, what is Sensible BC?
Sensible BC is a campaign to decriminalize the simple possession of cannabis in British Columbia.
Could you explain a bit of background on the police act and what its significance is? What is the Sensible BC Policing Act?
The Police Act is the legislation which authorizes and empowers all police officers in the province. Police are under control of the province, including the RCMP. It is fully within provincial jurisdiction to set police priorities and direct the police through the Police Act.
Sensible BC has prepared legislation called the Sensible Policing Act, which will decriminalize marijuana in the province. The bill we’ve written has three parts.
The first part is an amendment to the Police Act, forbidding officers from taking any action, including search and seizure, in cases of simple cannabis possession. This will effectively decriminalize possession in B.C. The second part adds cannabis to the section of the Liquor Control Act which covers possession by minors.
This empowers police to search and seize cannabis from minors in exactly the same fashion as if it were alcohol.
The third part mandates the Attorney General to write to the federal government and ask that they remove cannabis from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act so that B.C. can tax and regulate it like alcohol and tobacco. This section also mandates the provincial government to do a commission and then create the laws and regulations which will be used when the federal government does remove cannabis from the CDSA.
It seems very straight forward; do you think it will be difficult to get enough signatures? How many are needed? When do people vote?
It is very challenging to get enough signatures. The BC Initiative Act requires 10% of registered voters in all of B.C.’s 85 ridings to sign on within a 90 day period. Missing even one riding means the initiative fails. The only successful effort ever was the recent anti-HST campaign.
The next referendum is scheduled for Sept. 2014. Any initiative that gets enough signatures by early 2014 will get on the ballot.
That is why we will not start collecting the official signatures until fall of 2013. Between now and then, we will be registering support from people across the province. Our goal is to get enough people registered so that when the time comes to collect official signatures we can do it easily and quickly from those who have already registered their support.
It is very important that people register their support for the Sensible BC campaign. We need hundreds of thousands of people across the province to register for this campaign to be successful.
Why amend the police act rather than pushing for some other change in legislation about marijuana?
There are limits on what a province can do because the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is federal law. We recognize that decriminalizing possession at the provincial level is only a first step towards a fully legalized, taxed and regulated system.
Amending the Police Act is one of the few things that B.C. can do as a province to reduce the expense and negative impact of police interactions over cannabis possession.
Has there been any opposition to Sensible BC this early in the game?
We have had no opposition at this point, but we haven’t formally launched the campaign yet. However, the vast majority of people in B.C. believe that possession of cannabis should not be a crime. The BCNDP also officially supports the decriminalization of cannabis.
There have also recently been endorsements of cannabis law reform from former Mayors of Vancouver, former Attorney General, current mayors across B.C., health and policing officials, and other high-profile figures.
I know there are a number of people that would say that this initiative isn’t enough—that decriminalization isn’t enough—what would you say to them?
I agree that decriminalization of possession is not a complete solution, and that we need to move to a fully legalized system for cannabis. However, this is an important first step, it is something that is within provincial jurisdiction, and this will put considerable pressure on the federal government to go further and allow B.C. to fully regulate cannabis like alcohol or tobacco.
Does Sensible BC have a considerable amount of support?
Yes. We have received support from a wide number of political figures, health care providers, law enforcement officers, and academics. We are still in the process of gathering endorsements and planning out this lengthy campaign. I fully expect more prominent figures and organizations to endorse this initiative as the campaign progresses.
And finally, how can people help if they want to get involved?
Please come to <www.SensibleBC.ca> and register, then register your friends and family, and get them to register their friends too. We have free promotional materials available for those who register, such as buttons, t-shirts, fridge magnets and other fun items. If you believe in cannabis law reform then please join the Sensible BC campaign. This is our chance to actually change the laws and make history for our cause, our province and our country. This may be the most important cannabis campaign ever in BC history. Please join us now, together we can make this important first step towards ending the harmful war on cannabis.