Cannabis-minded Canadians react to efforts to legalize marijuana in U.S.
The peaceful forests, snow-capped peaks and glittering blue lakes of BC’s Kootenays did nothing to soothe the mind of BC Bud Boy, a young dope dealer who was always looking over his shoulder, fearing rivals were out to get him.
From 1996 when he was 17 to 2004, Bud Boy hung out on street corners peddling marijuana to people in his town under the shadow of those seemingly tranquil mountains, and also smoked it by the ounce as he mingled with people he described as “pretty shady characters”.
“You’re always looking over your shoulder, you always sleep with one eye open, always worrying that someone’s going to storm in and rip you off,” said Bud Boy.
Now Bud Boy is clean and has rebuilt his life, owning an honest, lawful business on the prairies where he lives with his pregnant fiancée in their new house, having left behind the fear, grubby cash, Ziploc bags of dope and paranoia that often comes with long-term drug use.
Years after Bud Boy put his shady past behind him, lawmakers south of the border in Washington, Oregon and Colorado are pushing forward with referendums to legalize marijuana on November 6, the same day of this year’s presidential election.
If passed, ballot measures in these three states would allow adults over 21 to possess small amounts of pot that would be regulated and taxed by their respective state, and includes driving laws to prevent drug-driving.
A 25 per cent sales tax would be imposed on weed, which would be sold out of stand-alone stores, with 40 per cent of profits going to state and local budgets, the rest to preventing and researching drug abuse.
Opinion polls are neck and neck in Washington and Colorado with Washington Initiative 502 most likely to pass. Oregon's bill, which imposes the fewest regulations, isn't likely to pass.
These referendums come just two years after Proposition 19 in California, also known as the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act was defeated by a 53.5 per cent 'No' vote, in a statewide poll on November 2, 2010.
“It would push Canada to legalize pot as it wouldn’t be fair for them to be so close to US states that allowed it,” said Bud Boy.
If marijuana was legalized, marijuana growers and dealers would have a choice: either work for state governments or go out of business, according to Bud Boy.
If he had a chance, Bud Boy wouldn’t vote in any referendum on legalization, keeping a neutral stance between prohibition and government regulation of pot sales.
“I just think drugs are drugs, just as booze is booze,” said Bud Boy.
But Jodie Emery, longtime pot legalization activist, editor of Cannabis Culture magazine, and wife of BC's 'Prince of Pot' Marc Emery, who’s now in a US jail, was overjoyed that voters in three states would have a chance to legalize dope.
Jodie Emery protesting outside the North Fraser Pretrial Centre where Marc was held in maximum security remand for 52 days in 2009; Photo courtesy of Facebook Jodie Emery Facebook page
The Washington, Oregon and Colorado referendums come two years after Marc surrendered to US authorities and was jailed for five years, minus time served, after pleading guilty to one count of drug distribution, in a plea bargain he struck with prosecutors.
“Marc and I are both official endorsers of I-502 in Washington, which is a bill sponsored by Marc’s former prosecutor John McKay, who’s now an advocate for ending prohibition,” said Emery.
In 2010, Emery was invited to testify at the state Ways and Means Committee in Olympia, Washington, in favour of I-502, where she met McKay, now a law professor at Seattle University, for the first time.
“We’re the only cannabis advocates supporting this bill. I-502 is strictly politically mainstream with Republicans, Democrats and law enforcement on board. We think it’s wonderful that our neighbouring state is willing to pass legalization into law and more people support this than oppose it. It looks like it’s going to pass and that’s because it’s politically mainstream,” said Emery.
According to Emery, many people in Washington who make money off selling dope, including medical marijuana growers, will vote no and are misinforming the public ahead of November 6.
“Marc and I are proud to be on the side of those politicians working on passing I-502,” said Emery.
Meanwhile her husband Marc is writing a blog from his jail cell in Yazoo City Prison, Mississippi, and has also started a band with fellow inmates. His release date is scheduled for July 9, 2014.
Back in BC, Vancouver Seed Bank storeowner Rebecca Ambrose said legalization in any of the three states would be positive, but it really depended on the wording of bills like I-502.
“In Colorado there’s a huge community there, I’d be surprised if it didn’t pass honestly,” said Ambrose.
If American states started legalizing dope, Ambrose said it would encourage Canada to follow suit, with BC planning its own referendum in 2014 to finally decriminalize its world-famous crop.
She didn’t think legalization would seriously affect her business, which sells seeds for cannabis and other medical and food plants such as tomatoes.
Most of her customers, about 70 per cent in her view, were Canadians, the rest being foreigners including Americans.
“It would have a huge impact, at the moment we get a huge number of American tourists coming over to get seeds and strains. We certainly don’t encourage them to try and cross the border with them,” said Ambrose.
But if Washington State legalized dope, Americans could smoke it in their own country, instead of crossing into Canada and risking the wrath of both Canadian and US Federal authorities, according to Ambrose.
“Neither of our federal governments are friendly towards it at this point,” said Ambrose.
But legalization in any of the three states would be a game-changer that would force the US Government’s hand and change drugs policy for years to come, undermining prohibition and the ‘War on Drugs’.
Stephen Gutwillig, Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that legalizing marijuana is now a mainstream issue, after Proposition 19's defeat helped force pot into the nation’s consciousness, with 46 per cent of Americans are currently opposed to legalizing marijuana, according to a 2011 Gallup poll.
Just six years ago, when George W. Bush was still in office, only 36 per cent of Americans favoured legalization.
“Over the last 15 years in particular, there’s been a massive swing in favour of dope legalization,” said Gutwillig.
He said a huge number of Americans under 30, voters of today and tomorrow, saw dope legalization as a non-issue, compared to people over 65 who oppose it.
“It puts the Federal Government on the spot to reconcile public opinion that’s so far ahead of public policy in this country, it’s a disconnect that cannot stand,” said Gutwillig.
As the US Government has historically dictated drug policy to other countries, legalization’s effects would be felt far beyond America’s borders, not only in Canada but also Mexico and other Latin American countries, many of whose societies have been ripped apart by brutal drugs wars over the past 50 years.
The Mexican Competitiveness Institute released a study on October 31st saying that legalized marijuana in Washington, Colorado and Oregon would cut Mexican drug cartels' earnings from smuggling to the US by up to 30 per cent.
“We know governments in Central and South America have begun to reject a prohibitionist approach and are demanding debate on drug policies in general. They are very interested in this latest initiative,” said Gutwillig.
To Latin American countries, bills like I-502 are a bellweather, and even if initiatives in all three states fail this month, it won’t reverse an overall trend away from prohibition.
Either way, there’s now room for more dialogue across borders about how to replace prohibition with a system to regulate, control, and acknowledge the role marijuana already plays in society.
Gutwillig said it was important to bring dope, a recreational drug, out of the hands of dealers like Bud Boy and under the rule of law.
The big question to him wasn’t when marijuana is legalized but how exactly to legalize a dug which many experts say causes less harm to users than alcohol or cigarettes.
“There will be more legalization initiatives in other states every four years if not every two for some time to come,” said Gutwillig.
Of the three states currently voting on legalization, Gutwillig said Colorado and Washington had the best chance, with public opinion in Oregon not as strongly in favour.
But even if dope is legalized in all three states, it won’t be legal in Canada or have any immediate effect on federal governments in either country, which remain prohibitionist for now at least.
Last month, Deputy Attorney General James Cole told TV program 60 Minutes that the federal government would examine potential dangers of selling marijuana, while the group 'No on I-502' says the initiative would do nothing to weaken the black market.
The federal government has already raided pot dispensaries in several of the 17 states that allow sales of medical marijuana, and legalized recreational pot may also be a target if any of the three states legalize it.
That also means any dope users crossing the border are still subject to both US and Canadian federal laws, and can face severe penalties if any drugs are found on them.
“The Customs and Border Patrol does not comment on State legislative issues or hypothesize on future border impacts based upon their enactments. CBP enforces Federal law in securing our nation’s borders, obviously federal law remains unaffected by state initiatives,” said Chief CBP Officer Thomas Schreiber in Blaine, Washington.
According to its 2011 figures, CPB officers seized 6,222 of illegal drugs on a typical day.
The Canada Border Services Agency was similarly tight-lipped on the impact of dope legalization on cross-border anti-narcotics operations.
“It would not be appropriate for the CBSA to comment on potential changes to the laws of another country or to speculate on the impact such changes might have here in Canada,” said CBSA communications advisor Faith St. John.
In the first quarter of 2012, over $100 million of illegal narcotics were seized across Canada by border services officers. Last year CBSA officers in the Pacific Region seized just over 51 kilos of marijuana in 1,300 seizures. Some 400 of those seizures were made in the Pacific Highway District.