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What the US marijuana vote means to the Kootenay

Marijuana is about to become legal in Washington State after Tuesday
Marijuana is about to become legal in Washington State after Tuesday's election.
— image credit: photo submitted

Washington State now has a more progressive marijuana law than BC.

In Tuesday’s United States election, 55 per cent of Washington voters supported a state initiative to make it legal for residents to have up to an ounce of marijuana in their possession for recreational use. Colorado voters also supported a similar initiative.

Previously both states only allowed possession of marijuana for medical purposes, which is also what’s permitted in Canada.

Don Skogstad, a criminal lawyer who splits his time between Nelson and Penticton, supports Canada-wide drug reform and has become the go-to lawyer for people in this area facing drug-related charges. He said unlike across the border where marijuana laws can change state by state, BC can’t legalize recreational marijuana on its own. Ottawa would have to make that decision for the whole country.

With Stephen Harper leading a Conservative majority parliament, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Both Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair are opposed to legalizing marijuana, though Mulcair would support decriminalizing it. The federal Liberals, however, say they would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana similar to alcohol, which pollsters say is what a majority of Canadians want.

“If the people had the same say in this country as they do in the US, Canadians would vote to do the same thing Washington did,” Skogstad told the Star.

An Ipsos Reid survey conducted this summer found that 66 per cent of Canadians believe it should be legal to carry a small amount of marijuana.

Union of BC Municipalities members, including Nelson council, voted in September to begin lobbying for the decriminalization of marijuana.

In the meantime, Vancouver pot activist Dana Larsen hopes to use BC’s Recall and Initiative Act — the same legislation used to repeal HST in BC — to force the province to hold a non-binding referendum to ask whether voters want police in the province to enforce federal drug laws.

Nelson Police Department chief Wayne Holland said there are other issues his department could focus more attention on if officers weren’t obligated to charge people caught carrying small amounts of pot.

“Law enforcement follows the direction of citizens,” Holland said. “Lawmakers and policy makers should speak for the majority of society when they tell us how to direct our resources.”

Both Holland and Skogstad agree that the change in Washington law could help address myths about the harm legalized marijuana would cause to society.

“People will see the state isn’t going into wreck and ruin just because marijuana is available,” Skogstad said. “Even since the legalization of medical marijuana, both north and south of the border, people are realizing it’s not the boogyman they thought it was.”

Canadians will also see how much money governments can make by taxing the sale of marijuana. Washington expects to collect $560 million in the first year from a planned 25 per cent tax on the licensed sale of marijuana in its state liquor stores.

“Maybe our government will realize they could use that kind of windfall,” Skogstad said.

As for what the new, legal marijuana markets in Washington and Colorado will mean for BC pot growers who illegally export their product to the United States, Skogstad doesn’t think there will be a lot of change.

“There are still 48 other states to sell BC bud to,” he said, noting California will continue to be a major importer.

He also said BC pot users probably won’t have much luck if they try to go over the border to pick up weed, since only Washington State residents will be legally allowed to purchase the product in stores, and bringing it back over the border would mean getting it past federal officials. More likely, they’ll just continue to buy from their regular source.

“People who use marijuana recreationally know where to get it and that’s not going to change,” Skogstad said.

“Whether marijuana is legal or illegal people are still going to grow it and people are still going to buy it. The difference is who profits from it.”

 

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What's the difference between legalized and decriminalized marijuana?

Legalized marijuana is what Washington now has. Legal penalties for using the product have been removed and new regulations for production and distribution will be developed. Alcohol is an example of a legalized substance.

Decriminalized marijuana is what the Netherlands have. Possession and production of the product for personal use is still technically illegal, but offenders won't be criminally charged. Instead, other penalties are in place, such as fines, that don't result in a criminal record.

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