Sensible BC’s campaign to decriminalize pot may already be floundering

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Sensible BC’s campaign to decriminalize pot may already be floundering

Polls suggest a lot of Canadians, perhaps even a majority, support decriminalizing personal possession and use of marijuana.

If that's true, then why is a well-funded B.C. campaign make that a reality in the province reportedly running into trouble?

The Huffington Post reports Sensible BC, which is hoping to force a referendum to change B.C. government policy on pot enforcement, is having trouble signing up people to make the vote happen. The 90-day campaign kicked off Monday to get the 400,000 required signatures.

[ Related: B.C. petition drive to force referendum on marijuana decriminalization begins Monday ]

Campaign leader Dana Larsen said last week he has 1,300 canvassers ready to start collecting names, far short of the 5,000 he was hoping for, HuffPost said.

Perhaps just as significant, none of the prominent politicians who've advocated removing the criminal stigma from marijuana use have signed onto Sensible BC's campaign.

A number of B.C. politicians, including former premier Ujjal Dosanjh, attorney general Geoff Plant, former cop and public safety minister Kash Heed and Liberal senator and former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell have not endorsed Larsen's group.

"It would be wonderful to have their endorsements, but this campaign is about the people of British Columbia and not about politicians," Larsen told HuffPost.

Campbell told the online news site he doesn't think Sensible BC's proposal goes far enough; he's holding out for complete legalization.

"Decriminalization to me doesn't make any sense," he said. "As an ex-police officer, as a coroner, as mayor and as a senator, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever."

Plant concurs.

"I don't think we should decriminalize marijuana possession partially," he told HuffPost. "I think we should decriminalize it completely by creating a scheme that legalizes it, regulates and taxes it."

Sensible BC is using the province's unique referendum/recall/initiative legislation to propose an initiative to amend the B.C. Police Act directing police forces not to expend resources on enforcing federal Criminal Code sections covering simple possession of cannabis. The Sensible Policing Act would essentially decriminalize possession without affecting how trafficking-related cases are handled, proponents say.

The proposed change also would get the province to call on Ottawa to repeal the prohibition on pot, or else give B.C. an exemption to allow the province to legally tax and regulate cannabis.

Sensible BC's campaign isn't lacking in funds. It has a $250,000 budget, a good chunk donated by Terrace, B.C., resident Bob Erb, who won a $25-million Lotto Max jackpot last year. That's about the same amount spent on the successful campaign in 2010 to force an initiative to roll back the B.C. harmonized sales tax, Vancouver Metro noted.

But the bar is set pretty high for an initiative to make it onto a ballot.

According to the criteria set out by Elections BC, petitioners have 90 days to collect signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province's electoral districts.

While concerted door-knocking in cities like Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna might achieve targets in those regions, Larsen conceded to CBC News collecting the requisite numbers in outlying areas will be a challenge.

"We need 10 per cent of the registered voters in every single one of B.C.'s 85 ridings to sign on board," he said. "If we just miss one district with 9.9 per cent, our referendum campaign fails."

[ Related: B.C. votes 55 per cent to scrap HST ]

According to Elections BC, of the seven initiative petitions (not including this one) launched since 1995, only the HST initiative was successful.

Larsen ran for the NDP in the 2008 federal election, but his candidacy ended after videos emerged online showing him taking the hallucinogens LSD and DMT.

Larsen, who admits Sensible BC has had trouble shedding its "stoner" image, made a last-ditch pitch for canvassers Sunday in a column in the Vancouver Province.

"We have a very good chance of forcing a referendum to decriminalize marijuana in B.C., but only if people who care about this issue will get off the couch and get involved," Larsen wrote.

Even if Sensible BC forces a referendum, the work isn't over. Proponents need support from 50 per cent of registered voters in the province and 50 per cent of voters in two thirds of all the ridings for the initiative to pass.

Alternatively, the government committee overseeing the legislation can recommend foregoing a vote and tabling a draft bill on the initiative for a vote by the legislature.