Thousands of people flooded onto Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada's capital, Saturday to demand the legalization of marijuana. The event came three weeks before Canadians go to the polls to elect a new national government, and while it was scheduled long before Prime Minister Paul Martin called elections for June 28, Fill the Hill (http://www.fillthehill.ca) has only added to the prominence of marijuana as a campaign issue this year.
With Martin's ruling Liberals having introduced a weak decriminalization bill this year – it would have created a system of fines for possession of less than 15 grams, but left cultivation illegal and increased penalties for all but the smallest marijuana grows – and Martin having promised last week to reintroduce it if returned to power, the issue is in play. And like the Liberal decrim bill, Martin's position on pot is drawing attacks from all sides.
The Conservative leader should have stopped there, but he also had a pot joke. "What I said was that I was offered a joint once and I was too drunk," he said when asked if he had ever smoked. "But the serious answer is that I'm an asthmatic, so I've never smoked anything."
While Harper was yukking it up, New Democrat Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton was pounding away at Martin's marijuana position from the left. Campaigning in Surrey, BC, this week, home of an estimated 4,500 marijuana grow-ops, he told a press conference he wanted to take the crime out of marijuana. "The best way to deal with marijuana grow-ops, in our view, is decriminalization," Layton said. "Right now you've got these huge grow-ops, it's entirely in a criminal context so you have violence, you have illegal activity of all kinds," he said. "Our approach has been to come up with a rules-based system that would prevent these kinds of big grow-ops."
But compared to statements Layton made last fall to Marc Emery's Pot-TV (http://www.pot-tv.net), the NDP leader is mincing words. In response to a question from the Vancouver marijuana seed millionaire and British Columbia Marijuana Party (http://www.bcmarijuanaparty.ca) founder, Layton explained why decriminalization wasn't enough. "Decriminalization addresses a very small part of the current problem, while leaving supply in a criminalized context," he said. "The NDP would like to see legislation that allows people to consume marijuana, particularly that they might grow themselves, and some technique that would allow them to be able to purchase safely, knowing what the quality is, and have that all be a legal activity."
Layton made his position even more clear in an advertisement he did for Pot-TV. "Folks, you're watching POT-TV, I'm Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, and I'd like to invite you to support our party, which is in favor of modernizing our marijuana laws, creating a legal environment in which people can enjoy their marijuana, in the peace and quiet of their own home, or in a cafe, without having to worry about being criminalized."
Layton's remarks, coupled with an NDP platform that does everything but say the L-word ("a non-punitive, rules based approach to adult use"), prompted Emery and other activists to embrace the NDP, with some even forming an "anti-prohibitionist" wing of the party (http://www.ndpot.ca), and to endorse it in this month's election. Emery went so far as to produce 50,000 flyers touting the NDP's pot position, an action that drew a rebuke, as well as some semantic hair-splitting from the Layton campaign. "Mr. Layton did not and does not endorse the legalization of marijuana," they said. "The NDP endorses its decriminalization." The party did not sanction Emery's flyers, and Emery is not authorized to speak for the NDP, they added.
While there has been some grumbling about Layton's semantics from the marijuana reform bases, Emery is unfazed. "Layton hasn't backtracked," Emery averred. "The NDP is solidly on cue, and we remain very excited. "There is some cynicism about the three established parties, but I don't share that cynicism when it comes to the NDP. I have been working with them for months and months now, and I have no complaints."
As for the brouhaha over the flyers, Emery professed little concern. "The literature campaign has been quite successful, and the controversy has only helped us out. I expect campaign managers to be miffed when someone who isn't under their control put out 50,000 flyers, but we're not going to let them make this issue number 15. For us, this is issue number one, and we treat it that way."
While Emery has thrown his support to the NDP, not all marijuana activists have followed that lead. Certainly not Marc Boris St.-Maurice, head of the federal Marijuana Party of Canada (http://www.marijuanaparty.ca). "We are in this," he told DRCNet. "We're staying true to our founding principles. I will continue to do everything I can to make this party work until marijuana is legalized," he said. "People who jump from party to party like gadflies do not inspire confidence. The party is running 71 candidates, mostly in Quebec and Ontario, but we've also experienced some growth in Manitoba, of all places. We'll be running seven candidates in Winnipeg, up from one last time."
If that sounded like a jab at Emery somewhere in there, it was. Emery strongly urged the national Marijuana Party not to field candidates but to support the NDP instead, and had some strong words for the party. Among other things, Emery said recently that some of its candidates were "sorry ass."
But if different factions of the Canadian marijuana movement are bickering, they set it aside long enough to share a stage in Ottawa Saturday. The pair of Marcs were among a roster of movement luminaries, also including Loretta Nall of the Emery-affiliated US Marijuana Party (http://www.usmarijuanaparty.org), Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc) head Jack Cole, and Philippe Lucas, head of Canadians for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccess.ca), the medical marijuana defense organization, who addressed the sun-baked crowds at Fill the Hill. Other speakers included Jude Renaud, director of Educators for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.efsdp.org), lawyer and law professor Alan Young, Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (http://www.cfdp.ca), Dominic Kramer of the Toronto Compassion Club. Member of Parliament Libby Davies and Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin sent letters that were read aloud.
Organized by Jody Pressman, a 23-year-old graduate of Ottawa's Carleton University, Fill the Hill pulled in some 5,000 people over the course of the day under the banner "REPEAL PROHIBITION – Harmful. Failed. Unjust." More broadly, Fill the Hill called for the defeat of the Liberal decrim bill, passage of a regulated approach that eliminates the black market, and the assurance of safe access for medical marijuana users. It was endorsed by LEAP, Educators for a Sensible Drug Policy, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and Canadians for Safe Access. The hours-long event was all talk, no music.
"We're in the middle of a federal election, and the issues concerning medical and recreational users haven't been dealt with," said Pressman. "A lot of people are suffering as a result. The government's medicinal cannabis program is horrible, there are ongoing raids like the one a few weeks ago at the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, these are big, unresolved issues. With their neglect, they are hurting us, and when we are harmed by certain laws, we demonstrate," he said.
And no music? "We asked do we need DJs and musical artists, and we decided that wasn't appropriate," said Pressman. "I'm proud of everyone who showed up; it was a testament to their convictions and to the quality of the speakers, who were all passionate and heartfelt," he said. "People came together not for a pot party but to repeal prohibition," said Pressman. "There were thousands of people smoking pot, but it wasn't about pot smoking. This was about when and where and why they were smoking. They were telling the people in power that they want in; they were smoking pot for a cause," he told DRCNet.
LEAP's Jack Cole was the hit of the show, as the Canadians wrapped their minds around the idea of an America cop calling for an end to prohibition. "I believe in legalizing all drugs," he said, adding that regulated drug distribution would drive out criminals. "When I speak to police officers on a one-to-one basis, they almost always agree with me that the war on drugs is a dismal failure," he said.
"Jack Cole was really impressive," said the Marijuana Party's St.-Maurice. "I think that's one of the biggest turning points I've seen since I've been an activist. To have police officers come on board loud and proud, well, that's one of the last pieces of the puzzle."
But in his remarks to the crowd, St.-Maurice had the election on his mind. "I explained that the Marijuana Party will see this through to the end," he said, "and I talked about people joining other parties to further the cause. I endorse that, but if they found they weren't getting the respect they deserved, we will always be there, the door will also be open in the Marijuana Party."
Pressman said that the real enemy was the Liberals. "Prime Minister Martin said he will revive the decriminalization bill, but it is really more like alternative penalties -- that's what former Justice Minister Cauchon said when he introduced it," Pressman argued. "What Martin is doing is actually quite conservative. Decrim means you take the criminal aspects out of it, and Martin's bill doesn't do that. If he gets his way, we may end up with a weak bill, and that would be pathetic 30 years after the LeDain Commission recommended real decriminalization. Martin's bill does nothing for medical users, makes things worse for recreational users, and kills the momentum behind our issue."
"The NDP offers true decrim," Pressman said. "Jack Layton came out and made some strong statements about legalizing it earlier. Now he's in election mode and he's trying to couch his message in words that appeal to the mainstream, so I don't fault Jack for saying decrim now instead of legalization. Your heart may say you want your leader waving a joint and saying legalize it, but your head knows that first he has to get into office, and grandma and grandpa aren't going for the joint-waving."
"Let the Marijuana Party and the BCMP and the Greens say legalize," Pressman suggested. "The NDP says it wants a non-punitive rules-based approach, and I trust them on that. Instead of criticizing Jack Layton, we should be thanking him for making this more palatable."
The Canadian federal election is set for June 28. Although the most recent polls show the ruling Liberals in a neck and neck race with the Conservatives, with the NDP placing a strong third, the conventional wisdom is that the Liberals will be able to form the next government. The question is whether they will have to so as a minority government. If that turns out to be the case, the Liberals will have to turn to members of Parliament from other parties to pass legislation, thus, in the eyes of hopeful activists, providing an opening for the NDP to push for "non-punitive, rule-based" marijuana policies that do not stop halfway.