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."
Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University who has worked with the Sensible BC campaign, acknowledged it's not entirely clear what would happen if the province ordered police to stop enforcing marijuana laws, particularly when it comes to the federal RCMP, which provides much of the municipal policing in B.C.
"The province in B.C. does have power over the administration of justice, so it would be entirely reasonable for them to say to police forces that they do not want police forces prosecuting people for simple possession of cannabis," said Boyd.
"The specific initiative of amending the Police Act — it's unclear to me how that would be responded to. Of course, it opens up the door to a potential showdown with the RCMP and the federal government."
At the very least, Boyd said the petition campaign will continue to drive a public debate that politicians have been eager to avoid.
"The more important issues are raising these questions and asking for answers," he said.
"No answers have been forthcoming."