B.C. pot decriminalization referendum bid falls short but advocates not giving up

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A group trying to get the decriminalization of marijuana in B.C. delivered a petition containing over 200,000 signatures to Elections BC. While the bid fell 100,000 signatures short, pot activist Dana Larsen is vowing to try again.

A bid for British Columbia to join neighbouring Washington state in becoming a hassle-free zone for recreational pot users has, as expected, fallen short. But advocates are not giving up.

The well-funded effort by Sensible BC to force a referendum to effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use failed to collect the more than 300,000 signatures required under provincial legislation to force a ballot.

"We will have about 210,000 signatures to hand in to Elections BC on Monday morning," Sensible BC said on its web site. "While we won’t have enough to trigger a referendum, that’s still over two-thirds of the 312,000 minimum required.

"We didn’t achieve our ultimate goal this time around, but this is still a remarkable feat, and everyone involved in this campaign should feel proud of our accomplishments so far."

[ Related: B.C. pot advocate's petition to decriminalize marijuana comes up short ]

To force a referendum under British Columbia's recall and initiative legislation, groups are required to collect signatures from at least 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province's 85 electoral districts. Any subsequent referendum isn't binding but if it passes it would be a powerful signal to legislators to act.

Unlike Washington and Colorado, where ballot initiatives effectively legalized the sale and consumption of recreational pot, Sensible BC wanted the province to amend the Police Act to instruct cops not to charge individuals found in possession of small amounts of the drug.

With marijuana laws enshrined in the Criminal Code and a federal Conservative government dead set against legalization, anything more would be a pipe dream.

Sensible BC had hoped to get 450,000 names to provide enough of a buffer against disqualified signatures, according to the Surrey Leader. Despite accumulating less than half that number, Sensible BC prime mover Dana Larsen put as good a face as possible on the defeat.

"It's a pretty remarkable accomplishment," Larsen said, according to the Leader.

"We've definitely demonstrated a high level of organization and support for this cause. Had we been operating under the rules of pretty much any other referendum system in the world, we would have qualified to be on the ballot."

[ Related: Harper’s Brandon letter, the demon weed and Justin Trudeau ]

The Sensible BC campaign was well organized and well bank-rolled, thanks to a $300,000 stake from Bob Erb, a longtime pot advocate who provided $300,000 from a $25-million lottery win.

In its post-mortem, Sensible BC said B.C. referendum rules made the challenge hard. The two-month time frame and the widespread nature of the province made logistics difficult.

"No other referendum system in the world requires canvassers to have 85 different forms on hand to collect signatures, or has such a short time period to work with," Larsen said on the group's web site.

The campaign began with about 1,500 petition canvassers, a force which grew to 4,500 by the end. But Larsen said they encountered interference when they set up tables near businesses, such as a fast-food outlet employee who was sent out to run a noisy leaf blower for a hour "blowing away imaginary leaves around our sign-up table . . ." In other instances, police were called.

"We will be going to court over the coming months, to affirm our right to collect signatures in public spaces, and to ensure that other canvassers for other causes also don’t get needlessly harassed while engaged in legal activities," Larsen wrote.

Nevertheless, canvassers reached the 10-per-cent threshold in 19 electoral districts and eight per cent in at least five others, the group said.

Surprisingly, it did better on Vancouver Island and parts of the B.C. Interior than in the Metro Vancouver region, the Leader reported.

Larsen called the campaign a success despite the shortfall, saying the number of supporters it garnered should be a message that the issue of decriminalization must be addressed.

And he promised to take another run at a referendum.

"We're definitely going to do this again," Larsen told CBC News. "This is not the end of the Sensible B.C. campaign. It's just the beginning."