As he munches on a beef sandwich in a cluttered eighth-floor office near Victory Square, Dana Larsen hardly seems the type to have a monumental impact on policing. But don’t let his casual attire deceive you. As the financial agent of the Sensible B.C. campaign to stop police from busting people for marijuana possession, Larsen is spearheading a revolution on behalf of pot smokers. And he’s hoping that the initiative he’s sponsoring to amend the Police Act will have as much success as a similar campaign to eliminate the harmonized sales tax.
“It’s very challenging,” Larsen tells the Georgia Straight. “The odds have been stacked against us from the beginning, but I will say the odds are much better now than when we started.”
The campaign received a boost earlier this year when Terrace cannabis activist Bob Erb promised to match donations up to $500,000 to Sensible B.C. Erb made the pledge after winning a $25-million lottery jackpot a day after Larsen spoke against marijuana prohibition in Terrace. “I had just left his town and then I heard on the radio that he’d won the lottery,” Larsen says.
To start the process, Larsen needed to have a draft bill accepted by the chief electoral officer. With the help of legal expert Kirk Tousaw, Larsen wrote the Sensible Policing Act. It declares 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 also requires the minister responsible for policing to write to the prime minister, calling upon the federal government to amend the law within three months of its receiving royal assent so that B.C. “can tax and regulate cannabis using lessons learned from the regulation of alcohol and tobacco”.
Beginning in September, Larsen has 90 days to collect signatures of 10 percent of registered voters in each of the province’s 85 constituencies. That will require thousands of volunteer canvassers to gather names in their areas.
“We need about 400,000-odd signatures—that would be the minimum,” Larsen says. “We’re hoping for a half a million to put it over the top. Our goal is to motivate our base.”
If that target is achieved, the chief electoral officer has 42 days to verify that the signatures are valid. Once this occurs, the bill goes to a legislative committee. Members can either table a report recommending the bill be introduced into the legislature, where it can die on the order paper, or refer the bill to the chief electoral officer for in initiative vote, which would take place on September 27, 2014. The initiative vote requires approval from more than 50 percent of registered voters in total, as well as 50 percent of registered voters in two-thirds of B.C.’s electoral districts. The initiative vote is not binding on the government, but it would force the draft bill to be introduced into the house for debate.
One of the organizers of the HST initiative, Bill Tieleman, tells the Straight that Larsen faces a daunting challenge. “If everything worked in the right way, it’s still not anywhere near guaranteed that you’ll get a referendum,” Tieleman says.
Tieleman adds that there were 6,500 canvassers gathering signatures opposed to the HST. Even with an army of this size, the campaign nearly failed when it came close to missing the mark in one of the Abbotsford constituencies. “One out of 85 ridings screws up and you’re done,” he says.
So far, Larsen says he hasn’t received much of a public push from provincial politicians apart from the NDP MLA for Saanich South, Lana Popham, posting a positive comment on the Sensible B.C. website. However, Larsen claims that the campaign has already identified tens of thousands of supporters, who will be contacted next month to sign petitions at designated locations.
“In an election campaign, you get guaranteed access to apartment buildings, but not for this,” he says.
Tieleman recommends that Sensible B.C. push for an initiative vote to prevent its draft legislation from being buried by the B.C. Liberal government. It’s a message that Larsen appears to have taken to heart.
“We’re used to politicians wimping out on this, not addressing it, avoiding it, denying it, even though there is overwhelming public support,” the campaigner says. “This, to me, is exactly what our referendum system was designed for: to deal with the issues where the politicians are way out of whack with the will of the people. It’s a way of getting them back on course again.”
In advance of the campaign, Sensible B.C. funded a research paper by SFU criminologist Neil Boyd that shows a doubling in annual marijuana-possession charges in B.C. between 2005 and 2011. Boyd estimated that court and policing costs of marijuana-possession enforcement reach $10 million per year in B.C.
“This cost is difficult to justify, as a mounting toll of criminal convictions continues to impose significant employment limitations and travel restrictions upon convicted users,” Boyd wrote. “Further, it is well known that cannabis use represents a relatively trivial risk to public health, in contrast to other more widely used mind-active legal drugs.”
Cannabis-legalization activist Jodie Emery says she hopes that citizens don’t lose sight of the financial costs.
“They’re paying for pot-prohibition enforcement through policing and the courts,” she declares in her West Hastings Street office, which doubles as the headquarters for Pot TV. “That’s something they should be upset about. They should get out in the street and say, ‘No, we need to end this prohibition and you’re wasting my money.’”