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B.C. pot reformers catch whiff of victory in Washington weed vote

B.C. pot reform advocates are celebrating Washington State's historic vote Tuesday to legalize and tax marijuana, saying it adds momentum to their campaign for change here.

Initiative 502 passed with 55 per cent of voters in favour, making Washington the first U.S. state to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults, along with Colorado, where a similar vote also passed.

"Tell everyone I'm elated – it's the biggest day of our movement ever," Marc Emery, B.C.'s imprisoned Prince of Pot, tweeted from his U.S. jail cell.

His wife Jodie Emery celebrated the win in Seattle – where her husband was indicted for selling pot seeds – with Washington campaigners, including travel guru Rick Steves and the U.S. prosecutor-turned-reformer who put Marc behind bars.

But U.S. authorities said their enforcement of national drug laws is unchanged – marijuana remains federally illegal – and it's unclear how the state can carry out its plan to license marijuana farming and tax its sale in stores without federal consent. Negotiations are expected in a one-year rule-making period before pot there could be legally farmed or sold.

Observers here say the political implications are huge for the debate on drug policy reform in B.C., even if Washington's legalization plan is blocked.

"American voters are now ahead of Canadian governments on the cannabis file," said former B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant, a high-profile reformer with the Stop the Violence coalition. "It helps advance the argument for legalization here in B.C."

Rob Gordon, director of SFU's school of criminology, says it could spur more legalization drives if "the sky doesn't fall" and Washington starts reaping a windfall of weed revenue.

"The dominoes could start toppling," he said.

Washington estimates it would collect $560 million in the first year from a 25 per cent tax on 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.

If pot is legally sold in Washington, 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," he said.

"It's a huge step forward," said B.C. marijuana activist Dana Larsen, who's heads the Sensible BC campaign to force a provincial referendum on pot decriminalization using the Recall and Initiative Act.

As with the campaign to defeat the HST, volunteers will have 90 days in the fall of 2014 to get thousands of signatures from every riding of the province to trigger a referendum.

If it passes, the Legislature would vote on Larsen's proposed Sensible Policing Act, which would order an end to police enforcement of simple cannabis possession.

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 helps end the argument that the U.S. may "retaliate or freak out" if B.C. reforms its drug laws.

Plant 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, adding authorized retail sales should largely end organized crime's role.

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."

The Washington State vote comes two months after B.C. civic leaders voted to urge the province to decriminalize marijuana and explore methods to regulate and tax it.

University of the Fraser Valley criminologist Daryl Plecas, who is seeking the BC Liberal nomination in Abbotsford-South, said legalization in a  handful of U.S. states – or even B.C. – would do almost nothing to shut down grow-ops here because they would continue to feed off the larger market in the rest of the U.S.

He said Washington's plan won't stop illegal growing because some consumers will want pot that isn't government-approved and they definitely won't want to pay taxes on it.

The reform option Plecas said he would support is one where Canada and the U.S. make it free for individuals across their countries to grow their own pot and government takes no role in regulating or taxing it.

There would no longer be a highly profitable market for mass cultivation, he said.

"You've got no black market, you've got no organized crime and you've got nobody going to jail," Plecas said. "But as long as it's illegal elsewhere, we're going to have grows."

 

WHAT WASHINGTON'S INITIATIVE DOES

- Allows possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults over 21 effective Dec. 6. The state law change would be in conflict with federal drug laws.

- Removes state law prohibitions against producing, processing and selling marijuana, subject to licensing and regulation. Further rules and details would be worked out over the next year, during which time the state would negotiate with federal authorities.

- Imposes 25 per cent taxes on wholesale and retail sale of pot, with most revenue going to health care, drug treatment and education.

- Directs state to amend impaired driving laws to include maximum THC levels.

 

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