For folks like Dana Larsen, October 17th was a long time coming.
Over the past 30 years, Larsen has been one of the province’s foremost cannabis activists — alongside people like Marc and Jodi Emery, and the BC Compassion Society’s Hilary Black — serving not just as the head of advocacy group SensibleBC, but as one of the chief organizers of Vancouver’s annual 4/20 celebration. Larsen’s decades of advocacy (which includes, among many other things, founding the Vancouver Dispensary Society, and leading a 2013 referendum effort for legalization) have brought him into conflict with authority figures at every level of government, from Alberta law enforcement and federal prosecutors, to the Vancouver City Council and Park Board.
But, even with legalization now a reality, Larsen has no intention of hanging up his spurs.
Which is why, now that Canada has taken its first tentative steps into the legal marketplace, we decided to sit down with Larsen to get his take on what the future holds — for the legal market, the grey market, for upcoming 4/20 celebrations, and why, for the nation’s cannabis activists, the battle is far from over.
(NOTE: Interview has been edited for length and clarity)
COSA: As an activist in the cannabis space for this long, how do you feel about how legalization has been handled?
LARSEN: When you’re working on this kind of stuff over your life, you imagine that legalization is going to be this great day of liberation and vindication. But the reality is — and I think this goes with any civil political movement — is that it’s incremental change. Even the legalization we got is still just an incremental change. I’m very happy about what we’ve accomplished, but I don’t think it’s the end of the road. It’s just another step on a very long journey. It’s a very big step, and I’m happy to see how things are going, but I expect many more years of confusion, and the prohibitionist mindset to continue for quite a long time.
How do the provinces stack up, law-wise?
It’s hard to say. I’m not really an expert on each province’s details. Quebec and Manitoba have gone way too far – they’ve banned home cultivation entirely. Quebec has even banned the purchase of cannabis-related imagery. You can wear a t-shirt with a cannabis leaf on it, but you can’t buy one. And that’s actually a step backward.
Alberta and Saskatchewan have more stores. So does New Brunswick. Here in BC, with only one store, and with prohibitions on anyone seeing your [home-grown] plants, I don’t think we’re even in the top half. To me, the home-growing aspect is really important. A lot of people are most concerned with where you can buy cannabis, but really, home growing is a key part of the liberation of the cannabis movement. And in BC, growing your 4 cannabis plants is limited by the fact that, if anyone can see your plants from any public space, you’re liable to get a $5000 fine and 3 months in jail – penalties that double for your second offence. That kind of stigmatization of someone seeing a legal plant – that there’s any harm to the public – that’s still a very anti-cannabis mindset. And it’s disappointing to see that continue under a system that’s supposed to be about liberalization.
And one unfortunate aspect of this is that the federal government has basically empowered the provinces to enact more strict laws if they want, and the provinces have empowered the cities to put in even more strict laws if they want to. Every step down the line in governance, we’re getting more restrictions. We have cities like Richmond saying ‘We don’t want any cannabis in our city’.
Although Ontario is pretty terrible, too. They’re not opening any shops until the spring, and their website is really bad. They’re actually behind BC in terms of number of shops. But 1 shop vs zero shops – in practical terms, for the vast majority of people in the province, it’s no different.
What do you think the next few years are going to look like? What’s going to happen to the grey market, and the black market for example?
I think there will definitely continue to be a robust open market – or unregulated market — whatever you want to call it, here in Canada. There’s no question in my mind that’s going to continue. I expect that over the next five years, the legally-regulated market will expand, and the unregulated market will contract. But I don’t think it will have completely replaced it, and the reason for that is that the legal system we’re putting in place is too tightly-regulated and controlled, and taxes are too high. Access is too limited. The only way we’re going to get rid of the black market is to outcompete it – which the legal system should be able to do. But that would require a regulatory regime that doesn’t treat cannabis like plutonium, and lets the price drop to a much lower price than it is now. As long as you can get $1000 for growing one of these plants in your basement, people are going to keep on doing that.
Speaking of incremental change, what do you think the next step is going to be? Do you think amnesty is likely anytime soon?
The Liberals are talking about it. Maybe they’ll use it during the next election or something. I don’t know. But the amnesty aspect is a bit tricky. I’m entirely supportive; I’d even go further, and push amnesty for all cannabis charges – not just for possession. But here’s the thing: personal possession of illicit cannabis remains illegal under current laws. And by definition, you would have had illicit cannabis prior to legalization. So, if they’re going to offer amnesty for those who have possessed illicit cannabis in the past, but people are still being charged under current laws, that would seem a bit weird to me. I’m not sure how you would resolve that paradox.
What I expect they’ll probably do, rather than create an amnesty, is make it easier for people to seek pardons for possession charges under 30g. Maybe remove the fees involved, or something like that. But a pardon isn’t the same as an amnesty. It’s not a recognition that the government was wrong. It doesn’t necessarily erase the whole thing from the records. And it certainly wouldn’t help those people from getting across the border from the US. Just because we gave them a pardon, doesn’t mean that the American government doesn’t care. As far as they’re concerned you’re still a criminal.
Speaking as one of 4/20’s organizers, what are the plans for 2019?
This year’s 4/20 is going to be a massive thing. First of all, it’s the 25th anniversary. Secondly, it falls on a Saturday. And, we’re post-legalization. It’s going to be massive. I think it’s going to be the biggest one we’ve ever had, based on all those factors put together.
The city asked me ‘Oh, are you going to cancel it now? There’s nothing more to protest’. But to me, there should be more cannabis-related events happening after legalization, not less. And it should be easier to get a permit, not harder. I think we still have a lot to protest, and one of those things is that cannabis events like 4/20 are treated in such a discriminatory way – we can’t get permits, we get insulted by local politicians. But really, it’s a wonderful community event, and one of the most beloved events in Vancouver for those who attend it. There’s still plenty to protest, and when the day comes that there’s nothing left to protest, 4/20 will continue purely as a celebration.
So, what’s SensibleBC’s next move? Can cannabis activists hang up their spurs, or is there more to be done?
I see our focus being twofold: first, cannabis reform – I think our best plan is to focus on British Columbia, and try to get them to improve the cannabis laws provincially and municipally. And I think we’ll have some opportunities to do that. When edibles and extracts come in next year – or whenever they get finalized – that’ll be an opportunity in BC to adjust some of the laws we have in place.
But also, I’d like to expand SensibleBC’s focus beyond just cannabis. I want to start using the same tactics to end the whole war on drugs. I think entheogens and psychedelics are a good place to start; we’re seeing a bit of that happening, and I would like SensibleBC to help expand that. I’ve been working on the cannabis thing for 30 years. But I think entheogens will happen faster than that. I think that, within the next 10 years or so, we’ll have the same situation, where they’re being made legally available. I’m not sure it’ll be in the same way as cannabis – I’m not sure that magic mushrooms would necessarily be sold in the same way – but I think that they should be legalized, and regulated. And I think there would be a lot of benefits to these substances being available. We’ve seen this already – the medicalization of these entheogenic substances. Research into MDMA and psilocybin for mental health. Some of those substances are helpful in getting people off of other drugs, like opiates and stimulants. Using them to treat addiction is something we’re missing out on in society, and would provide huge benefits.
I’d like to see more dispensaries starting to use the dispensary model to offer entheogens. I’d like to see an end to opioid prohibition. I’d like to see the War on Drugs come to an end, and I think that in 2019, SensibleBC will be adjusting our focus accordingly.
Jesse Donaldson is a Vancouver journalist whose work has appeared in VICE, The Tyee, the Calgary Herald, the WestEnder, and several others. His first book, THIS DAY IN VANCOUVER (2013), was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize.