As marijuana is legalized in two U.S. states, Canadian cannabis watchers react
“It’s fantastic news, Marc and I are overjoyed, a strong message has been sent that it’s time to legalize marijuana. It means that we should take a new approach ourselves and we will work on a Sensible BC campaign to legalize marijuana,” said Jodie Emery, wife of BC’s ‘Prince of Pot’.
She was in Seattle as a guest of New Approach Washington from November 5th-7th, where she watched as I-502 was voted into law, the same night Barack Obama won a second term as president.
She noted that just as American voters in two states chose to legalize marijuana, new laws in Canada took effect on November 7th, providing for a mandatory minimum six-month jail term for anyone caught growing six or more pot plants.
“We are going backwards,” said Emery.
As the news broke late at night on November 6th that voters in Washington and Colorado chose to legalize marijuana, pot activists and medical marijuana users, together with experts and seed sellers on both sides of the border reacted mainly with excitement.
In Washington, Initiative 502 passed with 55 per cent of the vote, and allows people over 21 to own a small amount of marijuana for personal use, removes the ban producing, processing, and selling marijuana, subject to licensing and regulation by the liquor control board, and DUI laws now include a drug-driving provision.
Meanwhile in Colorado, Proposition 64, which passed with 53 per cent voting ‘yes’, allows people to grow up to six mature marijuana plants privately in a locked space, buy it from licensed retailers, legally possess up to one ounce of pot, and give as a gift up to one ounce to other adult citizens.
As in Washington, drug-driving laws are included, and Proposition 64 is seen as more liberal than I-502 as it lets people to grow their own marijuana.
British Columbia next?
BC is the only Canadian province that allows popular referendums, and Emery is working with the Sensible BC Campaign to decriminalize marijuana, with a vote being scheduled for 2014.
Meanwhile Vancouver Seed bank owner Rebecca Ambrose said that legalization in America would encourage more Canadians to grow seeds, despite new, tougher drug laws north of the border.
“It’s proof that our drug laws don’t work,” said Ambrose.
She also said many Canadian tourists could head south to enjoy a legal joint, putting cash into state coffers, and make politicians realize how much money could have been saved – or even made – by ending marijuana prohibition.
“We’re pretty excited to be honest, especially as Washington borders BC. That’s a big deal, as whenever the Canadian government talks about modernizing drug laws we get an earful from the US about trade embargoes and they economically threaten us if we change them,” said Ambrose.
The previous Liberal government did want to reform marijuana law, but the Bush Administration forced them to back off, and today PM Stephen Harper is moving in the opposite direction with drug policy.
What Ambrose now wanted to see was support from American politicians and public in helping Canada reform its own drug laws, saying that US drugs policy had prevented both the Canadian and Mexican government from legalizing or at least decriminalizing marijuana.
“We’ve been suffering under American laws as Canadians for so long now,” said Ambrose.
War on Drugs "collapsing"
But the ‘War on Drugs’, waged by successive US federal governments for decades might be collapsing, as Washington and Colorado could be the first of a string of American states to legalize marijuana.
In doing so, these states would effectively withdraw from the War on Drugs, legalization being their “exit strategy,” according to Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is campaigning for an end to prohibitionist laws widely seen as a failure by the US and global public.
“That’s precisely what occurred during alcohol prohibition in the late 1920s, leading to the collapse of federal prohibition in 1933. States simply stopped enforcing prohibitionist laws and that played an enormous role in altering the climate of support for that failed policy, said Gutwillig.
While some opponents say that legalization in Washington and Colorado could turn them into pot smuggling hubs, Gutwillig said that marijuana production and distribution would be tightly controlled in the former.
Colorado’s Proposition 64 isn’t quite as restrictive, but Gutwillig said that in the early years of legalization there would be a tendency towards strict control, to reduce the amount of marijuana being ‘diverted’ into the black market.
“Today 100 per cent of recreational marijuana derives from the underground economy. We don’t believe that the legalization of marijuana nationwide is going to completely stop the cartels, but it’ll obviously take a bite out of their bottom line, and substantially reduce the role they play in the unregulated marijuana trade,” said Gutwillig.
But not everyone’s happy with legalization, with pushback coming from No On I-502, a group of medical marijuana users in Washington concerned over the law’s drug driving provisions, which they say could criminalize innocent people.
These include a legal drug-driving limit of five nanograms per millilitre of blood for motorists under the influence of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which can stay in the body for up to 30 days after the last joint.
No On I-502 spokesperson Steve Sarich also said that police could pull drivers over and demand blood samples, which he said violated the US’ Constitution’s 4th Amendment.
“You can own an ounce of marijuana, but you can’t have it in your body. They need a warrant to search your home but not your blood, which seems a little bit crazy to all of us,” said Sarich.
Already, he said police were pulling over motorists and demanding blood samples over the last two weeks, in anticipation of I-502 being passed.
Most worryingly for Sarich and his fellow medical marijuana users, the revised DUI law also sets a zero-tolerance level for marijuana for drivers under 21, toughening up current laws.
That means automatic guilt for any minor who falls foul of the new DUI rules, with no defence in court.
“Every medical marijuana user in Washington will be guilty of driving under the influence of drugs,” said Sarich.
As a medical marijuana patient, Sarich uses the drug every day, and says he wakes up each morning “four or five times,” over the legal limit.
But while medical marijuana users fear being caught by I-502’s DUI rules, legalization does not change the medical-marijuana laws.
Gutwillig said there was no reason to worry about the 5 ng THC blood limit.
“All the Washington Initiative does is identify what’s referred to as a per se level of THC that qualifies for impaired driving, which is what also exists for alcohol. All this did was address concerns that some voters had of the potential for marijuana legalization increasing impaired driving rates, which is not likely to occur in any case,” said Gutwillig.
Nonetheless, No To I-502 members are due to meet with their lawyers on Sunday as they plan their fightback.