05/10/2013 12:07 EDT

Marijuana Legalization In BC May Be Closer Than We Think

HOLD FOR MALCOLM RITTER STORY -- FILE - In an April 20, 2005 file photo, a University of Colorado freshman, who did not want to be identified, joins a crowd smoking marijuana during a "420" gathering at Farrand Field at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo. People who started using marijuana persistently before age 18 risk losing some of their IQ by the time they're 38, a long-running study says. In contrast, even long-term chronic users who started after age 18 showed no such effect, suggesting the drug holds some particular toxicity for the developing brain. (AP Photo/Longmont Daily Times-Call, Richard M. Hackett, File) MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, NO SALES

April 20, 2013. The air around the Vancouver Art Gallery is thick with pot smoke.

It's the annual 4/20 rally, once a fringe event whose attendance has grown 1,000-fold since its inception. On the gallery's north side, you can hardly move an inch amid a crush of patrons at an illicit farmer's market, where merchants peddle all types of marijuana, from blueberry strain to Purple Kush.

The police largely turn a blind eye to the festivities, and the only reprisal anyone faces is from an eccentric street preacher who urges the revellers to count their blessings.

But 4/20 isn't just a free pass to smoke weed for a day. It's also a movement to decriminalize the drug and make the police turn their heads permanently, with a base of public support that has grown in lockstep with the rally's attendance numbers.

After 18 years, the movement may finally be reaching its goal as marijuana advocates find practical, pragmatic, legal paths to making every day 4/20 in B.C.

Dana's Way

Dana Larsen has seen the movement grow first-hand.

The Vancouver-based activist claims he's the only one who has attended every 4/20 rally since the first one at Victory Square in 1995, where Marc Emery, now serving a U.S. prison sentence for shipping marijuana seeds, helped run an extension cord out of his Hemp BC store across the street.

"I don't know what I would have said if you told me ... that 18 years from now, there's going to be 30,000 people down at the art gallery as part of this event," Larsen told The Huffington Post B.C.

"I would have been happy to hear that, but I'm not sure I would have believed you."

Since that time, Larsen has become one of B.C.'s most prominent voices advocating for the decriminalization of marijuana. He helped start both the Marijuana Party of Canada and the BC Marijuana Party, gaining three per cent of the vote when he ran in the 2000 federal election and the 2001 provincial election.

He would later run for the NDP in the 2009 provincial election, only to be dumped when videos emerged of him smoking pot and taking hallucinogenic drugs, Pique Newsmagazine reported.

Today, he's the face of Sensible B.C., a group petitioning for a referendum on marijuana through the same process that ended the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST).

The process involves gathering signatures from 10 per cent of eligible voters in every riding to force a vote on the Sensible Policing Act, proposed legislation that would redirect police resources away from activities and charges relating to cannabis possession.

"We can do that because the provinces within Canada have jurisdiction over policing and the administration of justice," he says.

Larsen initially started the petition in 2012 but withdrew it so that he could organize more support. 4/20 gave him that opportunity when he strung banners across the art gallery's pillars and a music stage to the side.

He plans to resubmit his petition in September, and must gather the necessary signatures within 90 days.

It may seem unlikely that a provincial law could stop police from enforcing a federal one, but SFU criminologist Neil Boyd says that provinces have a great deal of discretion when it comes to administering justice.

"For the Government of B.C. to say that it will not enforce the criminal prohibition against cannabis possession because of the amount of time and money it takes to do so - and scarce police resources - that would be a reasonable use of the power to administer justice within the province," he says.

Evan's Way

Dr. Evan Wood is the lead researcher at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the founder of Stop the Violence B.C. (STVBC), an organization that studies the link between cannabis prohibition and organized crime.

Supporters include former Vancouver mayors Sam Sullivan and Larry Campbell; former B.C. premiers Ujjal Dosanjh and Mike Harcourt; and former B.C. attorney-general Geoff Plant.

In a 2011 report, STVBC found that B.C.'s cannabis industry is worth up to $7 billion, with revenues going to gangs and gang violence.

The report used B.C. RCMP data to show that gang-related killings increased from 25 reported incidents in 1997 to 43 in 2009, while the proportion of all gang-related killings within all homicides climbed from 21 per cent in 1997 to 34 per cent in 2009.

Decriminalization, Wood says, "would take us from the current circumstances, which is the violent, unregulated market that exists with organized crime, to a strictly regulated market whose goals were health and safety."

He favours a research trial that would evaluate the taxation and regulation of adult marijuana use, and how that may reduce profits for organized crime.

Decriminalization would effectively bring B.C. into line with Washington state, which voted in November to set up a system of licensed marijuana growers and retailers, The Associated Press reported.

Washington's decision is generating strong economic activity north of the border. Surrey hydroponics business Pacific Northwest Garden Supply and Green Planet Wholesale Ltd. has seen sales quadruple for equipment to grow medicinal marijuana.

The decision has also generated stronger support in B.C. to find alternatives to prohibition. Shortly after the Washington vote, a group of researchers at UBC and SFU released a study pegging the value of black market marijuana sold to British Columbians at anywhere between $443 million and $564 million.

Decriminalizing marijuana would effectively take British Columbia in the opposite direction, says former-premier, attorney-general and STVBC supporter Ujjal Dosanjh.

"We would spend much less on all of these aspects of law enforcement, and we could make a lot more in terms of regulating and taxing," he says.

"We would be both financially farther ahead and in terms of the presence of crime we would be much farther ahead, so we would have a safer, more peaceful and a richer society. And nobody can argue with that."

Wood's idea for decriminalization already has massive public support. A poll commissioned by STVBC found that 73 per cent of British Columbians would support a research trial for taxed and regulated marijuana, with 44 per cent saying they would look more favourably on a political party prepared to back it.

Approving the research trial would require an exemption from Canada's health minister under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The act permits exemptions to banned drugs for scientific and research purposes, and if it is in the public interest.

Famously, the federal government opposed a Section 56 exemption for InSite, Vancouver's safe injection facility, and fought it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where it was unanimously upheld.

SFU professor Boyd, a supporter of STVBC, points out that InSite won its exemption with a broad base of support from the provincial and civic governments, as well as the city's police department.

It's uncertain at this point whether Wood's research trial would get the same broad support. The question of marijuana decriminalization drew disparate, but largely non-committal responses at the provincial leaders' TV debate.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix supports decriminalization but said it's a federal issue, not a provincial one; Liberal Leader Christy Clark said the province needs to focus on ways to grow the economy, but shied away from discussing marijuana.

Conservative Leader John Cummins said the issue would need to be discussed with the federal government, as well as the United States; Green Party Leader Jane Sterk provided the only committed response, saying that her party would work with Ottawa to end prohibition.

Responding to an STVBC questionnaire, the NDP and the Green Party indicated that they would support such a research trial, while the B.C. Liberals said they would only consider such a proposal if it were initiated by the federal government. The Conservatives did not respond.

Nevertheless, Wood remains optimistic: "These exemptions to the federal laws are being used quite regularly to try and come up with better treatments and public policies," he says.

"I see no reason why we couldn't have that same leadership in B.C."

Decriminalization, he says, is just a "house of cards" waiting to fall.

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