Les Leyne: Changes to marijuana law moves closer

It looks like B.C.’s municipal leaders will boldly go where most senior governments fear to tread, when it comes to getting real about marijuana.Delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria are expected to vote today on a resolution endorsing the decriminalization of marijuana.It will be surprising if it doesn’t pass fairly easily. The resolution is the latest move in a well-thought-out campaign that’s been carefully executed over the last while.It’s based on opening a second front for the decriminalization movement, which has been mostly in the hands of the zealots for years.The true believers in pot, like former NDP leadership candidate Dana Larsen, are still hammering away. Just last week they unveiled plans to start an initiative drive to collect 400,000 signatures to force a referendum on setting a new provincial policy that would effectively legalize simple possession.But last fall a new and different campaign began. It’s based on bringing in respected mainstream community leaders to validate two general themes. The first is that the status quo isn’t working. The second is that decriminalization would be a common sense response to the absurdities that the current laws on marijuana continue to create.The campaign is organized and directed by a group called Stop the Violence B.C., an organization with a long list of members with impeccable credentials in health policy, law enforcement and the political sphere.They opened with a poll establishing that British Columbians by a fairly wide margin don’t support the status quo laws on marijuana, and most think it should be regulated and taxed.Working with a public-relations firm, the group has built momentum since then to bring policy in line with those findings and to cajole politicians into coming onside.They organized the appearance last November of four former Vancouver mayors to endorse the movement.Sen. Larry Campbell, Mike Harcourt, Sam Sullivan and Philip Owen went public and signed an open letter stressing the gang-related violence that stems from marijuana prohibition. It also challenged current politicians to consider the alternative — to legalize and regulate the plant, to eliminate the illicit market, increase tax revenue and eliminate some of the costs associated with processing people through the criminal courts on marijuana charges.A few months later, they staged another round of validation, where four former attorneys general said effectively the same thing.That was followed up in April by another open call for regulation and taxation, this time by a coalition of municipal leaders.Various mayors from all over B.C. endorsed Stop the Violence B.C.’s goal. There had been an earlier round of resolutions passed by municipal councils saying the same thing.So although delegates have never tackled the issue before, they are not being hit with it cold. A lot of groundwork has been done.The resolution — to decriminalize and study the regulation and taxation of pot — also has a prime spot on the agenda, and is favourably framed by the committee that checks the motions.It was preceded by a panel discussion on the pros and cons of decriminalization. Even though it was staged early Monday, before many delegates had arrived, the room was jammed to capacity.It’s a subjective call, but it seemed like the decriminalization side easily carried the day.The leading opponent — criminologist Darryl Plecas — made an unfocused argument that descended into slapstick at one point (“Smoking marijuana is stupid and you become stupider”).He cited the harms associated with marijuana — impaired driving, lost opportunity costs — but acknowledged they affect a small share of the population. And none of his arguments defended the status quo, which is getting pretty indefensible. Plecas also assured people the black market and gang violence would continue even if it was decriminalized, something that is emphatically disputed by others.Decriminalization advocate Geoff Plant said he was paralyzed as attorney general on the issue by all the arguments that U.S. authorities would react strongly if moves were made in B.C.But with various marijuana-initiative votes on the ballots in neighbouring states, he said B.C. may soon be playing catch-up if the issue isn’t addressed.What he called the “multi-generational obsession with ‘reefer madness’ ” still has a way to run. But it feels like the end to prohibition is closer than it used to be.

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