B.C. pot advocate Dana Larsen to challenge Police Act with petition initiative

VANCOUVER – One of British Columbia’s leading marijuana advocates says he’s going to raise an army of well-trained, disciplined volunteers for his effort to decriminalize possession and use of cannabis by adults.

Elections BC announced Thursday it has approved in principle an initiative petition filed by Dana Larsen, who ran unsuccessfully for the leadership of B.C.’s New Democrats.

Larsen’s draft bill, entitled the Sensible Policing Act, would amend the Police Act, and prohibit the use of provincial police resources to enforce simple possession-and-use laws for adults.

It also asks the province to call upon the federal government to repeal marijuana prohibition laws or give B.C. an exemption.

Elections BC announced it will issue the petition Nov. 19, giving Larsen 90 days to collect the signatures of more than 10 per cent of registered voters in each of B.C.’s 85 electoral districts.

Story continues below advertisement

However, Larsen said he won’t be gathering signatures this fall.

Instead, he’ll use the petition to generate attention and gather volunteers to find, train, excite and mobilize “an army of well-trained disciplined signature gatherers.”

He said he will submit another application in September 2013 and then begin the process of collecting signatures.

“It is a very difficult procedure, absolutely,” he said in an interview. “It’s a big challenge. That’s why we’re doing it in this unique way of spending a year in advance to build support and build up our volunteer base.

“I am very confident that far more than 10 per cent of the registered voters in every riding of the province support decriminalization of cannabis.”

Attorney General and Justice Minister Shirley Bond was unavailable for an interview, but said in a statement that she recognizes the initiative process is available to any registered voter in B.C.

“However, I have confidence that our Police Act currently meets our public safety responsibility to communities right across the province.”

She also noted that her government had no authority to make decisions on decriminalization.

“What it means is that unless Canadian law is changed, the production, sale and use of marijuana is currently illegal and controlled by federal legislation and our police have a responsibility to enforce the Criminal Code.”

Story continues below advertisement

Peter Lepine, chief constable of the West Vancouver Police Department and president of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police, declined to comment on the politics behind the bill.

“At the end of the day from a policing perspective, we’re tasked with enforcing the laws as the laws are written,” he said.

Larsen said many British Columbians recognize police resources could be better spent on “serious criminal offences,” and many want to see cannabis laws reformed.

However, police are spending more time and resources on enforcing possession laws and charges have doubled between 2005 and 2010, Larsen said.

Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, agreed with Larsen on the possession statistics, noting charges have jumped from 1,700 in 2005 to 3,500 in 2010 even though use hasn’t changed.

Boyd said 10 to 20 per cent of B.C.’s population has used marijuana in the last year.

“I do think it makes sense not to enforce marijuana possession laws,” he said.

Boyd said police report about 15,000 cases annually, but only 3,000 people are charged.

“So there is an enormous amount of discretion exercised,” said Boyd.

He said police in some jurisdictions ignore use, while in others marijuana is confiscated and nothing’s done; meantime, in other areas, charges are laid.

Story continues below advertisement

Larsen said he’ll need several hundred thousand dollars and thousands of volunteers to gather a minimum of 400,000 signatures in order to try to change the law.

If he succeeds in gaining the required signatures, the province’s chief electoral officer will have to verify the petition before sending it to a legislative committee, according to Elections BC.

After receiving the petition and the proposed bill, the committee must meet within 30 days and then has 90 days to consider the legislative proposal.

It can then recommend the introduction of the draft bill or send it back to the chief electoral officer for a vote.

Elections BC says those votes occur every three years, and the next initiative is scheduled for Sept. 27, 2014.

This is the eighth initiative petition application to be approved since 1995, when the legislation came into effect.

The last initiative, and only successful petition, was to end the Harmonized Sales Tax.

It was later approved in a referendum, forcing the province to go back a the goods and services tax and the provincial sales tax.