WILL WE GO TO POT?

Ac­tivist be­gins ‘daunt­ing’ task of col­lect­ing 40,000 sig­na­tures

The Province - - Front Page - GOR­DON MCIN­TYRE AND CASSIDY OLIVIER THE PROV­INCE gordm­cin­tyre@the­p­rovince.com co­l­ivier@the­p­rovince.com

Be­ing given the go-ahead to gather sig­na­tures for a pot referendum was like the starter’s gun go­ing off.

Now, Sen­si­ble B.C. faces some­thing akin to one of those days-long, 200-kilo­me­tre desert foot races.

“In­cred­i­bly daunt­ing, that’s a good word,” Dana Larsen, di­rec­tor of the group that’s push­ing for a referendum on pot pos­ses­sion, said Wed­nes­day. “There’s no guar­an­tee we’ll have suc­cess ... but I’m more con­fi­dent than I was when we started this process over a year ago.”

To have any hope of hold­ing a referendum on its pro­posed Sen­si­ble Polic­ing Act, about 40,000 sig­na­tures must be col­lected, rep­re­sent­ing 10 per cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers in each and ev­ery provin­cial rid­ing.

If that step is suc­cess­ful, a referendum would be held in 2014. To win that, Sen­si­ble B.C. would need yes votes from not only a ma­jor­ity of the turnout across the prov­ince, but also a ma­jor­ity in two-thirds of B.C.’s 85 rid­ings.

There’s a 90-day pe­riod to gather sig­na­tures, be­gin­ning Sept. 9, so Larsen is vis­it­ing as many rid­ings as he can be­fore then and will con­tinue stump­ing into Oc­to­ber.

“You need a lot of can­vassers and you need them in ev­ery rid­ing,” said Bill Tieleman, a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and pres­i­dent of West Star Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Tieleman was in­volved in a sim­i­lar ini­tia­tive in 2010 when his FightHST group spear­headed a cam­paign un­der the Re­call and Ini­tia­tives Act to re­peal the Har­mo­nized Sales Tax.

“We came within 600 sig­na­tures of los­ing the whole thing, based on one of the Ab­bots­ford rid­ings,” he said.

In the end, the anti-HST cam­paign won roughly 55 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote and 70 per cent of the rid­ings, and the HST was re­pealed.

Sen­si­ble B.C. says 70 per cent of B.C.ers polled are in favour of lib­er­al­iz­ing pot-pos­ses­sion laws.

A study the group com­mis­sioned ear­lier this year re­ported that B.C. tax­pay­ers spend just un­der $9,000 per con­vic­tion for sim­ple pot pos­ses­sion and that only about seven per cent of all po­lice re­ports of pos­ses­sion re­sult in con­vic­tions.

Yet, the same study re­ported, RCMP de­tach­ments in B.C. more than dou­bled the num­ber of sim­ple-pos­ses­sion charges they laid be­tween 2006 and 2011.

The is­sue isn’t par­ti­san, Larsen said: “This is not an at­tack on the Lib­eral govern­ment, they didn’t cre­ate pro­hi­bi­tion.” The anti-HST move­ment, on the other hand, was very much a pointed at­tack against the Lib­er­als.

Larsen granted that be­ing pro-pot has more stigma at­tached than be­ing anti-tax. And that may be the big­gest hur­dle the polic­ing act will face, ex­premier and anti-HST crusader Bill Van­der Zalm said.

“It’s such a tough, tough task,” Van­der Zalm said. “And it will be es­pe­cially tough on this is­sue be­cause peo­ple are more di­vided than they were on HST.

“But . . . we need to have this is­sue ad­dressed. Mar­i­juana is pretty com­mon with peo­ple th­ese days and it gets to peo­ple il­le­gally. A prac­ti­cal mind would say get it to peo­ple legally and col­lect taxes.”

That’s a long way off. The polic­ing act, if it ever was passed by the leg­is­la­ture, would only di­rect po­lice away from lay­ing sim­ple-pos­ses­sion charges. That’s some­thing peo­ple like Kash Heed, a for­mer so­lic­i­tor-gen­eral and a mem­ber of Stop the Vi­o­lence B.C., feels is a short­com­ing.

“I sup­port what they are do­ing, but it won’t deal with ... the reg­u­la­tion and tax­a­tion part of it — to take money away from or­ga­nized crime . . . and put it back into badly needed pro­grams around preven­tion and ed­u­ca­tion,” Heed said.

But un­til fed­eral laws are changed, things will re­main sta­tus quo, said Min­is­ter of Jus­tice Suzanne An­ton.

“Even if the group is suc­cess­ful in col­lect­ing enough sig­na­tures for the pe­ti­tion, the out­come would be un­cer­tain,” she said. “Our po­si­tion is that un­til and un­less Cana­dian fed­eral law is changed, the pro­duc­tion, sale and use of mar­i­juana is cur­rently pro­hib­ited, ex­cept in the case of spe­cific ex­cep­tions such as medic­i­nal mar­i­juana.”

GERRY KAHRMANN/PNG

Dana Larsen, di­rec­tor of Sen­si­ble B.C, hopes to col­lect enough sig­na­tures to force a provincewi­de pot referendum in 2014.

GERRY KAHRMANN/PNG

Sen­si­ble B.C.’s Dana Larsen will can­vass for a referendum that di­rects po­lice away from lay­ing sim­ple pot-pos­ses­sion charges. Larsen stands out­side a cannabis dis­pen­sary in the 800-block East Hast­ings Street on Thurs­day.

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