A recommendation to let police treat simple marijuana possession as a ticketing offence is being opposed by the head of a provincial campaign to decriminalize pot.
Dana Larsen, whose group Sensible BC is set to kick off a petition campaign next month to force a referendum on marijuana policy, says the new resolution from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is counter-productive.
The chiefs' association argues the option of writing tickets to punish people caught with less than 30 grams of marijuana would be less costly and time-intensive than sending criminal charges through the courts.
"It's a bad idea," Larsen said. "It's actually going to result in more cannabis users being persecuted."
He said police in B.C. issue warnings or write reports on 18,000 people a year for use of marijuana without laying charges.
"They would all get tickets under that new system," Larsen predicted.
He said the proposal could confuse B.C. voters as canvassers prepare to ask them to sign a petition that would press for a referendum on a proposed law blocking use of B.C. police resources for enforcing simple possession.
"Our solution does not involve fines or alternative penalties, it involves leaving people alone."
If Ottawa embraced broader legislative reform, he added, it should simply legalize pot.
"I'd rather see revenue generated through legalization, regulation and taxation rather than fining the people who happen to be unlucky enough to get caught by police," he said.
Larsen noted ticket-empowered police would still have the ability to charge some pot users, raising questions about potential selective enforcement.
The federal government, which would have to change federal legislation to enable marijuana ticketing, indicated it has no plans to legalize or decriminalize pot possession.
Vancouver Police Chief Const. Jim Chu, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said the organization does not support cannabis decriminalization or legalization.
Chu said police now must either turn a blind eye or lay charges when they encounter pot use, and ticketing would offer a new, more effective enforcement option.
The chiefs also say pot users who are ticketed for simple possession would avoid a criminal record that can block them from international travel, getting a job or gaining citizenship.
SFU criminology professor Rob Gordon called the resolution a significant shift that indicates police across the country – not just in B.C. – are ready for reform.
"It's the thin edge of the wedge, it's the beginning of a move away from the criminal enforcement approach," Gordon said.
He said Sensible BC campaigners are pushing for change too fast and said ticketing would be part of a more gradual move to alter public thinking and government policy.
"When marijuana policy is normalized, I think we'll look back at this period and say this is when the process began for the shift from criminalization towards regulation and taxation," Gordon said.
"If you go slowly, you can help people shift their thinking from their current belief that marijuana use is some sort of demonic activity to recognizing it as just another recreational drug that does minimal harm and the sky will not fall."
He said he wouldn't be surprised if B.C. liquor stores sell pot within five years.
Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been firmly against marijuana reform, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's call for change this summer in B.C. re-ignited the issue.
Gordon said Harper won't be able to ignore the chiefs' resolution, although he might send it to a committee for a lengthy period of study.
He said there are signs even Harper is positioning his government for a pivot on the issue, noting the recent cabinet shuffle saw the departure of several law-and-order hardliners, including former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
Petition campaigners have 1,000 canvassers
Meanwhile, Sensible BC's Dana Larsen said 1,000 canvassers are registered so far to collect signatures starting Sept. 9.
He said he hopes to have at least 2,000 in place by that date and to gain more – the group has a target of 5,000 – as the marijuana decriminalization campaign gathers steam.
They'll have 90 days to collect signatures from 10 per cent of registered provincial voters in each of B.C.'s 85 electoral districts.
Larsen said the Fight HST campaign had 3,000 canvassers in place at the outset and got another 2,000 to 3,000 in the ensuing weeks.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said.
No groups opposing the initiative registered with Elections BC by an Aug. 12 deadline.
Had a group done so it would have had a spending limit of approximately $1 million to counter Sensible BC. Groups and individuals can still sponsor advertising for and against the petition, but will be subject to a $5,000 limit.