Timing is everything in the marijuana decriminalization business

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law
It’s an odd coincidence that I’m writing this article around 4:20 p.m. on 4/20 from Vancouver — 4/20 being common urban slang for marijuana consumption that has now morphed into a cultural trademark for those who wish to decriminalize it and draw political attention on April 20 each year.

For years, people from all over Vancouver have been gathering on Robson Street in front of the art gallery steps (and across from the courthouse) at 4:20 p.m. on April 20 to brazenly light up (or in some cases, eat) their marijuana in full sight of the police and close enough to the Provincial Court, the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and the Court of Appeal that the annual celebration/protest/public relations exercise can’t go unnoticed by the judiciary — or the TV cameras.

The City of Vancouver is a bit of an odd duck in all of this, displaying a combination of passive-aggressive and obsessive-compulsive behaviour in dealing with marijuana.

Despite the fact the power to criminalize marijuana is federal, the City of Vancouver has attempted to regulate, by municipal licensing, 100 or more retail marijuana outlets that cropped up in the city in 2015 and which operate blatantly against s. 4 and 5 of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act.

Of those, only 11 or so meet the requirements of the bylaw, which most constitutional lawyers in Canada would say is ultra vires. But in Vancouver, politics is often theatre in disguise.

There’s been some buck passing with respect to the 4/20 “celebration” in Vancouver. The city didn’t want it by the art gallery anymore and unilaterally said it must go to Sunset Beach, within the jurisdiction of the Vancouver Parks Board.

The parks board didn’t want it at Sunset Beach because of the damage that a massive crowd could do to the beach and surrounding park, the fire risk, the problems with policing large crowds, and smoke inhalation by those wanting to use the beach but not partake in the 4/20 celebration. (You cannot smoke in Vancouver parks, so why should this be an exception?)

Indeed, moving the event to Sunset Beach was totally thrust on the parks board by the mayor, and the parks board had to devote monetary and other resources to an event it didn’t want or ask for. Not only did it have to close the aquatic centre that abuts Sunset Beach on April 20, it had to arrange security and hire lifeguards to prevent 4/20 celebrants from drowning in the ocean.

As parks board chairwoman Sarah Kirby-Yung said on CBC Radio, “The mayor was absent on the issue and downloaded it to the parks board.” She was not a happy camper.

On a brighter note, pro-pot pensioner Sir Paul McCartney was in town giving a concert where many a joint was smoked and where many a 4/20 partier ended up. Even Jimmy Fallon was at the concert, doing a number with Sir Paul. Pun intended.

Now not so coincidentally, Canadian Minister of Health Jane Philpott gave a speech to the United Nations on April 20, where she announced that the Trudeau-The-Younger government will introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana in the spring of 2017 (no doubt, on April 20).

Decriminalization shouldn’t be a surprise, because the Canadian people more or less figured out the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” policies of the past respecting marijuana was about as effective as prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s. And current drug policy more or less keeps the criminal traffickers making all the money as opposed to, say, the federal or provincial governments.

An Angus Reid poll (also released on 4/20) revealed that 68 per cent of Canadians believe that marijuana should be legalized and 64 per cent said legalization would do more good than harm in the long run.

The more interesting statistic is that 41 per cent of those polled believe that marijuana should be legalized but tightly controlled by government.

Clearly, smart politicians and policymakers are trying to figure out how to manufacture, distribute, and sell marijuana at retail so that their respective governments can make boatloads of tax dollars and pay for things like infrastructure, health care, and education.

But these are very complicated issues, so those developing policies with respect to eventual decriminalization are also grappling with other issues such as what decriminalization would mean for Canadians travelling across the U.S. border, over-consumption, addiction, drug education, and finding some way of ensuring that those who drive while high on marijuana can face the same stiff penalties as those who drive drunk.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and having been directly involved in advising the B.C. government on a new piece of legislation, I know it takes time, effort, and serious thinking to “get it right.”

New legislation and regulations aren’t drafted in a vacuum. The process normally involves input from experts, stakeholders, and serious consideration of the consequences of the new legislation on those directly or indirectly affected by it.

In other words, you don’t draft new laws on the back of a napkin over dinner. You have to think about it.

That said, I had to growl at NDP leader Tom Mulcair who criticized Trudeau’s supposed inaction on marijuana legalization a month or so ago and called it a “broken promise in a long list of broken promises,” demonstrating, to me at least, that the federal NDP are good at 30-second sound bites but have no clue how complicated actual governing is.

Sound bites are easy. Governing is hard. Governing involves difficult choices, tough compromises, and complicated juggling of interests.

Of course, now that Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis have somehow persuaded the NDP to debate the Leap Manifesto, the NDP will likely never get a chance to win a federal election; at least not in my lifetime.

What on earth were they smoking? Provincial NDP governments and opposition parties are either ducking for cover, leaping off cliffs, or in the case of B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, openly criticizing the federal NDP; Notley calling the Leap Manifesto (and indirectly, its supporters) “naïve and ill-informed.”

Some would say that NDP governments in power (or in opposition) are “waffling” with respect to their positions on the Leap Manifesto. That was a pun as well.

I would hazard to guess that the governing B.C. Liberals are thrilled to have received this wonderful political gift delivered on a silver platter. The Leap Manifesto is a political gift that will keep on giving for a few election cycles. It’s manna from heaven for centrist and right-wing politicians. It’s poison on the left.

Both Horgan and Notley should be considering a name change to their provincial parties. Otherwise, citizens in resource-rich B.C. and Alberta are going to call the NDP the “No Development Party.”

And it’ll stick like crazy glue.

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