Weeding out anti-drug attitudes

Canada has ‘unique opportunity to make a difference,’ pro-marijuana activist says

An estimated 10 million Canadians say they have used marijuana at least once in their lives.
An estimated 10 million Canadians say they have used marijuana at least once in their lives.

“Anyone who’s going to read your article has either used marijuana or knows someone who has, and they know that person is not a criminal.”

That’s how cannabis legalization activist, co-founder of the British Columbia Marijuana Party and former Vancouver NDP candidate Dana Larsen ended our phone interview.

Larsen, who will speak tonight at the Grad Club, has been involved in the cannabis anti-prohibition movement since his teenage days.

“When I was a student at Simon Fraser University, I started a club on campus. I guess that was kind of my first activism,” he said.

In 1994, shortly after he graduated, Larsen helped create Cannabis Culture Magazine, where he was editor until 2005. Marc Emery, the leader of the British Columbia Marijuana Party and so-called “Prince of Pot,” served as the publisher.

Larsen said that, because the magazine’s office in Vancouver was close to that of the Marijuana Party’s which frequently experienced police raids, running the publication was sometimes difficult.

“Working with Marc Emery I’ve seen lots of interesting things happen over the years,” he said. “We would all take pay cuts and the magazine would get delayed.”

Emery, who’s facing extradition to the United States for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and marijuana seeds, used to run a store called Hemp BC, which played a major part in selling cannabis-related paraphernalia. In 1998, police seized his entire stock.

“When Marc was running Hemp BC, the police would raid and take all the bongs and pipes,” Larsen said, adding that bongs and pipes are still illegal in Canada, though the law is rarely enforced. The sale and distribution of marijuana is illegal in Canada, but its use has been permitted for medicinal purposes since 2001. In 2006, Larsen founded the Vancouver Seed Bank, which sells seed varieties by mail-order, including those for banned plants such as marijuana and coca, which is used in the production of cocaine.

Larsen, who was invited to speak at Queen’s by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Young New Democrats, said his talk tonight will centre on the plant origins of four prohibited drugs: marijuana, coca leaf, opium poppy and psilocybe mushrooms.

“My goal is to realign peoples’ thinking,” he said. “We think of drugs as white powders and chemical labs in people’s basements, but at its origin it’s really a war on plants.”

Larsen said he’ll speak about the industrial uses of hemp, the coca plant’s benefits and the use of opium poppies for pain relief. He’s also speaking at the University of Toronto and Wilfred Laurier University.

Larsen said he has managed to steer clear of police action so far.

“I’ve never been arrested or charged with anything or done any time,” he said.

Aside from the police, Larsen said public response to his work has generally been supportive.

“Usually people … see what we’re doing as a useful thing,” he said.

Cannabis Culture Magazine circulates most of its 75,000 printed copies in the United States, but Canada is its second-largest market, Larsen said. When he was the editor, he said, the magazine sometimes faced legal troubles. Police in Timmins, Ontario forced the removal of the magazine from shelves on the grounds that it was a “crime comic.”

Larsen said the magazine is banned in Australia and New Zealand, as well as other countries.

While working at the magazine, Larsen co-founded the British Columbia Marijuana Party and the Canadian Marijuana Party. He ran as a candidate for the Canadian Marijuana Party in the 2000 federal election, receiving three per cent of the vote in the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast riding. In 2001, he ran in the British Columbia provincial election, receiving 3.5 per cent of the vote.

For a one-issue party, Larsen said, the results were surprisingly high.

“We weren’t expected to elect anybody. Our goal was to show the other parties there was a movement and a voice for this. We received three per cent of the vote our first election, which for a single-issue party is fairly substantial I think—it shows for three per cent of people it’s the number one issue.”

In September 2003, Pot.TV, an online source for videos related to marijuana culture and another Emery-led initiative, featured the federal New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton as its guest.

Layton, who had been party leader for nine months at the time, came to Emery’s home courting the anti-prohibitionist vote in an anticipated upcoming election.

Larsen said he already supported NDP philosophy and ideas in other areas, but Layton’s appearance marked a political turning point for him.

“When Jack Layton came on Pot.TV I joined the NDP,” he said.

Leaving the Canadian Marijuana Party in Emery’s hands, Larsen set to work on reforming the NDP’s drug policy.

“When I joined the NDP I always found a lot of grassroots support for drug reform. What the party was lacking was a comprehensive statement that puts all the drug policies together,” he said. “There was also some inconsistency between provincial and federal parties. There’s always going to be some disagreement, but I found that often provincially they favoured prohibition but federally they were more open.”

In 2005, Larsen founded eNDProhibition, an anti-prohibition wing of the NDP.

“Part of creating eNDProhibition was to bring parties on the same page on this issue,” he said. “We’re basically NDPers who want to see a change to the drug laws and see the party take a stronger stance on this.”

He said the group, which has about 700 members across Canada, has passed resolutions in several provinces regarding cannabis and supervised injection sites.

“To me it’s all one issue, but … we often have one in each of those two camps to bring the party together on these two issues,” he said of cannabis and supervised injection.

Larsen was set to run as an NDP candidate in Vancouver in the October 2008 federal election, but resigned in September after questions emerged about his role with the Seed Bank. In addition, a video from Pot.TV surfaced of him smoking marijuana and taking psychedelic drugs LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and DMT (dimethyltryptamine). After taking DMT, he was shown driving a vehicle.

Larsen said he wasn’t legally impaired in the video, but he resigned to avoid drawing negative attention to the Party.

“The videos that they showed and all the stuff that I’ve done—I stand by virtually all of that stuff. I’m proud of a lot of the work that I’ve done, but I also understand that taking LSD and filming yourself and putting it on the Internet is a bit out there for a lot of people,” he said.

Larsen said he had been a candidate for a year and a half and should have released the videos to the public earlier.

“Having the Liberal Party release that stuff during an election campaign—and that’s what happened—puts it in the worst possible light, it made it very difficult, he said. I didn’t want to make Jack Layton defend what I’d done on video 10 years ago.”

“It looked like I was going to become the focus and that totally wasn’t my goal within the Party.”

Larsen said the NDP didn’t kick him out and Layton wasn’t involved in the process.

“I could have forced the issue but I didn’t want to do that. I think I made the right decision, but it was a difficult one to make.”

Larsen said he’d like to run as a candidate again.

“If having taken marijuana or psychedelics means that you’re not allowed to run for political office then that eliminates a lot of people. A number of other politicians have used marijuana but they don’t do it on camera and they don’t have it released to the public during an election campaign.

“Everyone’s got a stupid video of themselves doing something they shouldn’t have done,” he said. “I was doing it before Facebook and YouTube, so maybe I’m ahead of the curve.”

Larsen said he’ll continue to push the NDP on its stance on drugs.

“It’s not a peripheral issue, it’s a key issue that ties into other areas of concern,” he said.

“I’d like to see the NDP, at the provincial level, become more proactive on this. At the provincial level you’ll have the party saying, ‘We do support legalization, but we can’t do anything about it, so in the meantime we have to crack down on these gangs.’ I find that to be a contradiction from my perspective.”

Larsen said marijuana legalization is a politically touchy topic.

“With every politician there’s sort of this fear, they don’t really know how to talk about marijuana and drug policy,” he said. “But I can’t think of an area of policy where our laws are more inappropriately based on harm and punishment and a misunderstanding of human behaviour than in marijuana prohibition.”

Larsen said anti-prohibition isn’t necessarily a partisan issue, pointing out that right-wing think tank the Fraser Institute supports the legalization of all drugs.

Larsen said his job isn’t finished until “our children and grandchildren aren’t still living this nightmare and seeing our money and our resources go towards people who are not guilty of any crime at all.

“I think Canada has a unique opportunity to make a difference in this area, and I think it’ll be a shame if we don’t.”

Dana Larsen speaks tonight at 7 p.m. on the second floor of the Grad Club.

Pot by the numbers

Canadians who reported having used marijuana at least once in their lives.

4.5 million
Canadians who used marijuana in 2004 (about 14 per cent of the population), according to Statistics Canada. Males were more likely than females to use pot, and about 70 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 said they use marijuana. The Canadian Medical Association estimates that about 1.5 million Canadians smoke marijuana recreationally.

Less than one per cent
Canada’s marijuana users who are caught by police. More than half get off with a warning.

Estimated number of Canadians who have criminal records for marijuana possession, according to Justice Canada.

Canadians who were charged with possession of marijuana in 2000.

$150 million
Money that would be saved in court costs each year if marijuana possession was decriminalized, according to Liberal MP Keith Martin.

—Source: CBC News Online

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