B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix delivered a key address to hundreds of municipal politicians from around the province Thursday morning at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria.

Dix's speech is being touted as the convention's top event due to expectations he will defeat Premier Christy Clark in the upcoming May provincial election.

He opened agressively by questioning Clark's decision to cancel the fall legislative session. Then he embraced free enterprise by saying B.C. needs a prosperous economy driven by the private sector, and countered his critics by saying opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline was not equal to opposing economic development in general.

He also told the delegates local governments should have a say whether or not big projects in their regions should be public-private partnerships, known as P3s. He also said the revenue from the carbon tax should be used to fund local projects.

When pressed by reporters afterwards to say if he would repeal the province's balanced budget laws, Dix appeared to indicate he would repeal the law, saying it is not always possible to balance a budget.

B.C. Green Leader Jane Sterk is scheduled to take to the podium later Thursday morning, before the annual convention wraps up Friday at noon, with an address by Premier Christy Clark.

Liberal minister kicks off electioneering

Dix's address was not the first campaign-style speech at the convention. The 1,500 delegates from municipalities and regional districts around B.C. got their first taste of some electioneering on Wednesday.

The new Minister for Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett got a warm welcome from the packed room of mayors, councillors and regional district representatives, who were likely expecting a typical convention speech focused on local government issues.

But after a few jokes, Bennett quickly switched into a partisan mode, spending the bulk of his 30-minute talk touting the accomplishments of the B.C. Liberals and warning of the perils of returning to an NDP government.

"The reality is if we lose our reputation in British Columbia as a good place to invest, to create jobs. If we go back to being a have not province, the economic basket case in Canada that we were, the province will lose the wherewithal to pay for those infrastructure program, to contribute those traffic fine revenues and grants to you."

The partisan speech got a mixed reaction from the delegates on the convention floor.

Marijuana resolution controversial

Also on Wednesday the municipal leaders voted in favour of a controversial resolution to lobby Ottawa to decriminalize marijuana 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. He 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.

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