VICTORIA - British Columbia's municipal politicians, sensing shifting emotional attitudes towards marijuana and a possible major new revenue source, voted Wednesday to lobby Ottawa to decriminalize pot and study the benefits of taxing and regulating cannabis.
The mayors and councillors from across the province clapped and cheered after voting to support marijuana decriminalization during a stirring debate in a crowded hall at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.
The vote sends a strong message to provincial and federal politicians that British Columbians believe current marijuana prohibition laws are not working and they want change, said Dr. Evan Wood, a noted HIV/AIDS expert who is spearheading a coalition of prominent B.C. health, legal and political officials calling for marijuana decriminalization.
"If I was a politician in this day and age, it would be with great reluctance that I wouldn't take a position of leadership on this and be willing to advance this cause, because at the end of the day, what we're really talking about is trying to improve public health and safety," said Wood in an interview.
But former Brian Mulroney-era cabinet minister Tom Siddon urged the UBCM to turn down the resolution supporting decriminalization.
Siddon, now a regional district politician in the B.C. Interior, said Canada's current approach to marijuana permits young people to fry their brains while leaving them open to moving towards harder drugs.
Siddon said organized criminals would not be deterred by decriminalization from selling pot and resorting to violence to protect their commodity.
"This is not a remedy," he said. "It's going to aggravate the temptations of young people to move from marijuana, which may be more harmless than a few bottles of beer, to being hooked on heroin, cocaine and the chemical designer drugs."
But Siddon's view did not prevail as many other municipal politicians said they believed decriminalization is a start towards beating back organized gangs who stage daylight murders to enforce their control over what has been estimated as a $7-billion annual product.
"I think it's about being progressive," said Prince George Coun. Brian Skakun. "I'm not going to judge someone about whether or not they smoke pot. I tried it when I was younger and I turned out OK."
Skakun said municipal politicians can't ignore the huge policing costs associated with marijuana and they also are keenly aware of the potential revenue stream government-regulated marijuana could generate.
Marijuana activist Dana Larsen, a former B.C. New Democrat leadership candidate, said the UBCM vote is a step toward pushing Ottawa to decriminalize marijuana.
"It's symbolic, but it also shows the municipalities and cities, who really bear the brunt of prohibition — they really have to pay the costs — they're calling for a change in this law," he said.
Larsen is leading a year-long petition campaign under B.C.'s direct democracy laws to enact a so-called sensible policing act which would result in no further police searches, seizures or arrests in cases involving simple possession of marijuana.
Earlier this week, UBCM delegates heard health policy advocates, police officers and former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant call on municipal politicians to lead efforts that could change what they call Canada's outdated pot laws.
Plant and others say decriminalizing marijuana will help fight organized crime gangs who invade communities and stage lethal battles to control B.C.'s lucrative marijuana market.
Plant has said municipal leaders are justified in taking a stand against federal marijuana laws because they govern and live in the communities where drug gangs operate.
But Sgt. Dave Williams, one of B.C.'s top RCMP drug enforcement officers, predicted decriminalization won't stop gangs from attempting to control the pot market.