With Canada now well on its way to legal recreational marijuana, what is there left for activists to protest at Vancouver’s annual 4/20 event?
Plenty, according to organizers of the massive gathering, which is scheduled to happen this Thursday (April 20) at Sunset Beach in the city’s West End.
In a telephone interview, Canada’s most prominent advocate for marijuana reform, Jodie Emery, was highly critical of legislation the Liberal government tabled in Parliament on April 13.
“It is prohibition 2.0,” she told the Georgia Straight. “It is not legalization. It is a continuation of the kind of criminalization that we’ve seen before, with the introduction of even harsher laws that will victimize even more peaceful Canadians.”
Emery said that this year’s 4/20 event is therefore about getting people involved in aspects of the legalization process that still remain to be determined.
“The provincial governments and city governments will be drafting a lot of the actual details, so we have to start reaching out to our elected officials there and telling them the truth about cannabis,” she explained.
If passed into law, the Liberal government’s Cannabis Act will make it legal for people to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of marijuana (as long as it is produced by a company authorized by the federal government). It would also permit individuals to grow up to four plants in their home.
Dana Larsen said that’s the good news. In a separate interview, the former vice president of the Canadian Association of Cannabis Dispensaries added that just about everything else in the Liberals’ plan is bad news. For example, Larsen said, the proposed laws provide for prison sentences for anyone caught giving even a small amount of weed to a friend under the age of 18. They also make it a crime to smoke a joint that was rolled with marijuana that was not grown by a company approved for production by Ottawa.
“Unless you grow it yourself or you buy it legally, even possession is still banned,” Larsen continued. “There are no comparable laws for alcohol or tobacco where they restrict the ownership of your alcohol like that.”
Larsen asked why the Liberals have proposed jail time for people who break the rules with marijuana while similar offences with alcohol or tobacco only result in fines.
“I would actually be happy if they just took all the alcohol rules and laid them on to cannabis,” he said. “I believe that the rules should be less severe for cannabis, because it is so much safer than alcohol. But as a term of public policy, I understand.”
In a separate interview, Kirk Tousaw, an Abbotsford-based lawyer who specializes in drug crimes, said that because it is widely understood that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, these tougher penalties for weed simply don’t make sense.
“That is just out of whack with what any rational system of government regulation should want to do,” he said. “You should want to penalize offences involving the more dangerous substances more harshly, not less harshly.”
In October 2015, when Justin Trudeau was still a candidate on the campaign trail, the Straight published an in-depth report on the competing Liberal and NDP plans for marijuana reform. It noted that during the first six months of that year, only 327 people spent time inside a B.C. Corrections institution for a drug crime.
However, an additional 1,069 British Columbians were convicted of a drug offence but were given probation or released on a conditional sentence. A number of people interviewed who fell into that category told the Straight stories of how their names were entered into computer systems that complicated things like international travel and job applications.
Tousaw warned that under the Liberals' framework for legalization, people will continue being arrested for marijuana and will be stuck with records that could haunt them for decades.
“It seems very clear that the government is committed to retaining significant criminal penalties, including the prospect of lengthy prison terms for cannabis-related activities that fall outside of the fairly narrow confines of what is going to be legalized,” he said. “There is no reason that a Canadian with 31 grams of cannabis should face a criminal record and the possibly of being fined or going to jail because they are one gram over some arbitrary number.”
Larsen emphasized that as long as people are going to prison for marijuana, Vancouver’s 4/20 festival is a demonstration against laws he described as unjust.
“It remains a protest,” he said. “Anyone who thought that this was going to be a big celebration and that we have nothing left to protest anymore, they are very wrong.”