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Sensible BC campaign aims to decriminalize marijuana possession

Province-wide initiative has 90 days to collect 400,000 signatures

The Sensible BC campaign starts collecting signatures on Sept 9. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This fall, Dana Larsen hopes thousands of British Columbians will petition the province to change the way it deals with marijuana possession.

Although the continued prohibition of cannabis is under federal control, police enforcement priorities within each provincial jurisdiction are dictated internally. Exploiting this tension, the Sensible BC campaign’s suggested changes to the Policing Act would essentially decriminalize simple possession of the herb throughout BC.

The proposed Sensible Policing Act states that no member of a provincial or municipal police force “may utilize and/or expend any police resources, including member time, on investigations, searches, seizures, citations, arrests and/or detentions related solely” to possession of marijuana.

The draft legislation instructs BC to lobby the federal government to allow a provincial exemption so that cannabis can be taxed and regulated “using lessons learned from the regulation of alcohol and tobacco.”

If passed, the Act would also require BC legislators to commission a study to change existing cannabis laws “to achieve a legal and regulated model for the production, distribution and possession of cannabis for medical and non-medical consumption by adults.”

Starting Sept 9, the Sensible BC campaign will have 90 days to collect the approximately 400,000 signatures it needs to get its citizen-initiated bill placed directly on a ballot for referendum.

If the campaign collects the required signatures and the non-binding referendum shows voters support the initiative, the draft legislation will then be introduced in the BC legislature for debate.

Larsen encourages anyone interested in supporting the campaign to register as a canvasser to help collect signatures. “This is something that needs a lot of public support,” he says. “Anyone who’s really wanted to see the marijuana laws change, this is a chance to make it happen.”

Recalling the successful grassroots effort to eliminate the HST, Larsen points out that unlike any other province, BC has regulations in place that allow people outside of political office to write legislation and put it on the ballot during an election.

If the campaign reaches that stage, Larsen is “very confident” that the amendments suggested by the Sensible Policing Act will be passed at the polls, and ultimately become law. It would be “very hard for a politician to ignore the results of a public vote like this,” he says.

Despite BC’s reputation for having a lax attitude toward the plant, Larsen says “marijuana possession is a huge make-work project for the police in British Columbia.”

A study funded by Sensible BC aimed at uncovering the cost to taxpayers of policing pot, found that enforcement rates for simple possession have been “skyrocketing” in recent years, according to Larsen.

In an analysis of police statistics, criminology professor Neil Boyd found fewer than 23 percent of police reports of marijuana possession in BC led to charges.

Boyd calls this “enforcement without any consistency or purpose.” He describes the decision regarding whether or not to press charges as “a rather arbitrary use of discretion.”

“The difficulty that we face is that our current sanctions are the product of history and culture and not the product of informed discussion and debate regarding relevant harms” Boyd writes. “We can point to other historical examples of this kind of cultural blindness outside the realm of cannabis prohibition: the criminalization of homosexuality, for example.”

In part, the report concludes that the resulting stigma against those prosecuted for possession of marijuana and the costs involved are out of balance with the public good, and diminish respect for law enforcement.

According to Jamie Shaw, media coordinator for the British Columbia Compassion Club Society and vice president of the Canadian Association for Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, it’s important that those who choose marijuana be able to speak openly about it.

“We have members that can’t tell their families the medicine they’re using,” Shaw says, adding that people shouldn’t have the stress of police potentially confiscating their medicine, or facing arrest and prosecution.

Shaw emphasizes the importance of specific regulations to protect cannabis as medicine, stating that federal legalization will not necessarily meet the unique needs of those who choose this therapy.

The qualities of cannabis strains used for certain conditions vary and may not be the same as those desired by other patients and/or non-medical consumers, Shaw explains. “When you take one component and isolate it at the expense of others you are maybe changing the effectiveness of the medicine… It also ends up being ‘cookie-cutter’ and we don’t all fit in boxes.”

Federally, the Conservative government passed the Safer Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10) in March 2012, which rewrote and expanded the severity of punishment for anyone found cultivating or distributing marijuana outside officially approved channels.

Combined with the deletions of certain elements of the medical program, such as the right of approved medicinal users to cultivate plants for their own use, these changes have the effect of transferring control over the quality and type of cannabis products available from informed individuals to large-scale, commercial producers. The changes are also expected to raise costs for users.

Larsen would like Canada to “move toward legalization as fast as possible.”