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Marijuana vote in Washington sparks up B.C. pot reformers

Marijuana grow op. - File
Marijuana grow op.
— image credit: File

Pot reform advocates hope Washington State's vote Tuesday on whether to legalize and tax marijuana will add momentum to their push for change in B.C.

Recent polls suggest Initiative 502 will pass, making Washington the first U.S. state to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults, while regulating and taxing its production and sale.

While it's not yet clear if the U.S. federal government will allow state-by-state legalization of recreational marijuana use – other states already allow medical marijuana sales – observers say the vote has huge implications here.

Rob Gordon, director of SFU's school of criminology, says it could spur a more serious consideration of legalization both in B.C. and in other U.S. states if "the sky doesn't fall" in Washington and the state starts reaping a windfall of weed revenue.

"The dominoes could start toppling," he said.

Two other states – Colorado and Oregon – are also voting on marijuana legalization Tuesday.

Washington estimates it would collect $560 million in the first year from a planned 25 per cent tax the sale of licensed, regulated marijuana through authorized stores.

"Whether or not their federal government is going to tolerate this remains to be seen," Gordon said, adding he expects American pot reformers will do better under a re-elected President Obama than if Mitt Romney wins the White House.

Another question mark is how close the vote ends up being – Gordon said there's evidence drug gangs that profit from prohibition helped defeat a similar initiative in California two years ago.

If Washington State really does legalize pot, Gordon expects a partial collapse of B.C.'s estimated $7-billion a year illegal pot industry as growers relocate their operations south of the border to avoid the need to smuggle.

"The operations in B.C. would shrink considerably. They'd be focused entirely on patchy local consumption."

Sensible BC, a campaign headed by B.C. marijuana activist and medical pot dispenser Dana Larsen, aims to follow in the footsteps of both Washington campaigners and B.C.'s successful anti-HST drive.

The group aims to get enough signatures on a petition to force a provincial referendum on marijuana decriminalization through B.C.'s Recall and Initiative Act.

Larsen's proposed Sensible Policing Act would block B.C. police from spending time or resources on searches, seizures or arrests for simple cannabis possession.

"There's no reason we cannot decriminalize possession in our province," Larsen said.

He aims to launch the initiative in the fall of 2014, triggering a 90-day scramble by volunteers to collect thousands of signatures in every riding in the province. If they get enough, the bill would go to a vote of the Legislature.

Premier Christy Clark and NDP leader Adrian Dix both say marijuana reform is up to the federal government and the prime minister has said the Conservatives won't loosen Canada's drug laws.

But Larsen argues Ottawa could, if pressured enough, exempt B.C. from federal narcotics laws to enable a regulated and taxed marijuana experiment here.

He said legal pot in Washington would help end the argument that the U.S. might "retaliate or freak out" if B.C. reforms its drug laws.

Former B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant, who is part of the Stop The Violence coalition advocating drug policy reform in B.C., said he prefers full marijuana legalization, rather than the half-step of decriminalization, which doesn't allow regulation and taxation.

"Full legalization removes the economic incentive for the illegal manufacture and distribution," Plant said. "People can get it safer from a retail outlet at a price that is reasonable. That should eliminate substantially all of the economic underpinnings for the organized crime control of the market."

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, who opposes marijuana use on grounds ranging from health to impaired driving risks, said it's a fantasy to think gangs would fade away.

"That is living in a dream world," he said. "They're not going to hang up their skates and become legal business people."

But Plant anything that helps sap the strength of gangs would help.

"I'm not saying we're going to put an end to organized crime," Plant said. "I'm saying let's put an end to that part of organized crime which is about gunfire in broad daylight in the streets of our cities for control of the cannabis market. That would be progress I think."

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