Marijuana Party makes BC history
Marc Emery sat up in bed that morning inspired, although he could have easily felt defeated. It was the day after the federal election, and he had run with the Canadian Marijuana Party, which hadn't won a single seat (CC#29 Marijuana Party fights national campaign). "I woke up and said 'we should make this a provincial party.'"
Emery's seemingly unreachable goal: a candidate in every single one of BC's 79 electoral districts, more than any other provincial political party had ever fielded in a first election. By that night, the general concept and structure of the British Columbia Marijuana Party (BCMP) had been roughly sketched out in Emery's head.
A mismatched bunch of activists ? with different political, religious and social views ? would be legioned together to do battle against the slick machines and media manipulation of modern politics.
We met for the first time at Marc Emery's idyllic home, overlooking the Pacific ocean. About thirty of us packed into his living room while candidates from the Canadian Marijuana Party related their experiences from the federal election. Brian Taylor, veteran hemp activist and former mayor of Grand Forks, BC, accepted the mantle of Party Leader.
We discussed and ratified a general party platform of "Choices, Options and Tolerance" with specific policies for forestry, Medicare, first nations, sovereignty, finances, government reform, justice and other issues, borrowing the best from BC's left (the Green Party and NDP), and right (Liberals, Unity and Reform).
The widely unpopular incumbent NDP would be swept from office, everyone knew that. They had suffered through a series of political scandals, and had disaffected grassroots support by failing to follow through on clear promises, including ending the war on pot. Despite multiple NDP party resolutions backing an end to the drug war, Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, BC's former Attorney General, had been leading the charge for more pot busts since taking over after Premier Glen Clark resigned in scandal.
To this day Clark believes the scandal that forced him from office was manufactured because he refused to cater to US trade interests. Dosanjh, on the other hand, was all too willing to bow to US will. Under Dosanjh, pot busts skyrocketed and the US was free to unleash the DEA in BC (CC#31 US Drug War in Canada). Further corruption and blunders ensured the NDP's demise. But who would replace them?
The party that had formerly occupied the right, the Social Credit Party (or "Socreds"), had been vanquished in the 1991 BC election, and so a huge political void loomed. The BC Liberal Party became the official opposition, but quickly morphed from being a truly liberal party to replicate and replace the defeated right-wing Socreds.
Many months before the May 16 election was called, the political grapevine grew ripe with the promise that the Liberals would sweep almost every of the 79 seats in BC's provincial legislature. Could the BCMP have an impact against this overwhelming tide?
"What we did was offer mainstream platforms," explained Emery. "The NDP and Greens would soak up all the [left-wing] votes no matter what. So what we did was offer a libertarian perspective. Our vision was unique. No-one else was suggesting legalizing brothels or a school voucher system, and so that is where we wanted to go. I was deliberately positioning us. I think that the BC Marijuana Party did appeal to the vast middle class, like the Liberals."
What glue could stick together former Greens, Liberals, NDP'ers and Alliance supporters against the stark force of electoral pressure, biased media and political intrigue? For many candidates, the cement of their involvement was some compelling incident that changed their lives forever, that pitted the voices of teachers, parents and authority against raw personal experience, echoing like an epiphany in the hollow core of the drug war.
Over thirty years ago, in the late 1960's, Tom Dreyer, a devout Christian, tried marijuana for the first time. Eventually he would run with the BC Marijuana Party in the North Vancouver-Seymour district, despite criticism from some in his congregation.
"I saw that people from my own family that were into booze did crazy things and caused a lot of family damage, and yet that was okay, because it was legal," said Dreyer. "Yet marijuana prohibition had pot smokers, which I never saw do anything crazy or demented, being arrested and being charged. That was my motivation for getting involved from a spiritual perspective. Also, there's absolutely no passage in the Bible that says we should not smoke marijuana. I like to quote 1 Timothy, 4:4, where it says 'For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.'"
Since the early 90's, Norm Siefken has worked in the medical field as an X-Ray technologist. He has seen "people mangled in car accidents, and all the violence that comes into the emergency room." None of it, says Siefken, is marijuana related. But much of it is the result of alcohol. "Alcohol is way more dangerous than marijuana, it isn't even a fair comparison."
In 1995, Siefken fractured his spine and began using pot medicinally. That same year, Marc Emery became headline news for defending his bong, pipe and clothing store, Hemp BC, against repeated police raids. "I was quite frankly inspired by Marc Emery," said Siefken. "So I just try to emulate him." Siefken represented the BCMP in his riding of Chilliwack-Sumas.
In 1993, Randy Caine was arrested for a roach and put in the back of a police car. This inspired him to run on an anti-prohibitionist platform as an independent in the 1994 BC election, open a smoke shop called "The Joint" in 1995, and run with the BCMP in the Surrey-Panorama Ridge electoral district. Caine still remembers the 1993 arrest as an epiphany.
"I looked out the back window and saw a couple with a child, and they were bent down, pointing to me and they were talking to him," said Caine. "What I perceived, rightly or wrongly, was that they were telling him what kind of person not to be. I went down the list and it seemed like I was okay. I had a supportive wife, I had a loving family. I was a decent person. Except I was a marijuana smoker. That negated everything else. I was being used to represent that which a person shouldn't be. That really got me fired up. That was etched into my memory about the whole experience. I broke out of the cage at that moment. I could no longer be ashamed of myself. Freedom isn't for free. But I was all of a sudden willing to pay the price."
Randy Caine is but one of a group of long-time activists that eventually joined Marc Emery, Party President, and Dana Larsen, Deputy Leader, in the BCMP. David Malmo Levine, who opened pot-buyers clubs throughout Vancouver in the mid-90's and is party to Caine's Supreme Court Challenge, ran for the BCMP in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant. I ran in the Nelson-Creston district, and saw my participation in the BCMP as the culmination of nearly a decade of pot activism.
Everyone in the BCMP realized the essential difference between their healing experience with marijuana, and the lie of marijuana as social and biological poison ? realized it with a deep sense of personal injustice. Like Randy Caine, many of us had experienced arrest or imprisonment first hand.
John Gordon, who now uses marijuana to treat HIV, remembers when he was 18, hanging out with "Quebecois fruit-pickers" in the Okanagan valley, and how marijuana was used as an excuse to harass and arrest them when local prejudices ran high.
For 59-year-old Mavis Becker, a grandmotherly figure packed with dynamite gumption, it was a pot bust in Saskatchewan that opened her eyes. "That was the year Christal got married. 18 years ago. It scared the hell out of me. I think that is when I started to realize they can really make your life unpleasant about this if they chose to."
Candidates Don Lavallee, Paddy Roberts (CC#31 US Drug War in Canada), and Don Briere among others, had also been previously arrested for marijuana. Ironically, given the party's policy that marijuana be legalized and fairly taxed, Briere was also burned for an alleged $1.3 million worth of tax evasion on pot crop profit.
If Mavis Becker is the grandmother figure of the BCMP, then Bob Erb ? with his grizzled BC backwoods accent ? is the grandfather. 30 years of growing and being busted opened Erb's eyes. Erb, the BCMP's Skeena district candidate, is probably the closest living descendent of the good-natured moonshiner archetype.
Out of literally dozens of busts, Erb has had only four convictions for marijuana. His pot epiphany stemmed naturally from his direct experience of marijuana as a vitalizer of local small-town economies. "You have to let the ordinary working class guy understand what benefits come with legalization," said Erb. "Lower property tax, education, environment, health care."
If there is an antipathy to epiphany, it is fear. Fear, especially, of being harassed, arrested and jailed by police.While many candidates had already faced this fear, some were about to be confronted with it for the first time.
"I was just standing there at the Victoria Liquor Store handing out pamphlets," said Chuck Beyer, Victoria-Hillside candidate. "When I ran with the NDP I campaigned before a liquor store. There is 45 minutes of Chek TV coverage showing me doing just that. The rent-a-cop called the police when I refused to leave, but a liquor store clerk is willing to testify that I wasn't disturbing the peace.
"When the police arrived," continued Beyer, "I asked them 'how the hell am I disturbing the peace?' What they said was, 'you are disturbing their right to quiet enjoyment of their place.' It is a legal term that has nothing to do with noise or anything. When they arrested me I had a joint in my pocket, and they charged me with that too. Somebody, presumably, got the names of the people who complained. I imagine that some people didn't like the Marijuana Party. But too bad! This is an election!"
On May 3, 2001, in the Chilliwack-Sumas district, police burst in on a Marijuana Party fund raiser being held by candidate Norm Siefken. On hand were pot activists Marc Emery, party founder and now president; Renee Boje, a refugee from the US drug war fighting extradition to the states; and John Conroy, one of Canada's two foremost pro-cannabis lawyers.
"There were six or seven constables on the scene," recalled Siefken. "Basically there was a smoking room upstairs. But in the end they didn't arrest anybody. It was a Thursday night, and at midnight they had a liquor license inspector on standby, and brought him in."
"It was Constable Hall and Witting," said Siefken's campaign manager, Brian Carlisle. "Hall is the cop who removed me when I was medicating an MS patient in a Chilliwack hospital. She wanted to put me in jail, but she couldn't, because we had cameras and media there the whole time. Hall has been like that ever since. [At the fund raiser] I asked her why she was doing this, and she wouldn't talk to me. They didn't lay any charges. It was just to harass a good thing."
Police were also in attendance in Prince George, where BCMP candidates and brothers Andrej and Will Dewolf held a public demonstration on a hilltop park with candidate Rob Grimsrud. Officers set up a road block at the bottom of the hill, illegally screening carloads of people for cannabis. In the lower mainland, police shook down Nanaimo district candidate Don Lavallee and friends on a ferry-boat while on their way to a political protest.
BC cops' interests went beyond a simple prejudice against marijuana. Not only would the BC Marijuana Party shut down the cops' cash cow of easy marijuana busts, it had announced plans to dispense with the RCMP altogether and replace them with a provincial force. Although their direct involvement amounted to quasi-military interference in an election, rankled cops found innovative avenues of attack against the BCMP. Most notable of these avenues was the media, who were all too ready to open the gates.
"They're being irresponsible," quipped Constable Colleen Yee, from the RCMP Drug Awareness Unit, in an interview with the Vancouver Sun. "The party's message makes it more difficult to educate youth about the dangers of drugs." She followed her statement with a haunting and all-too-familiar reefer-madness rant. The story was released and reprinted in papers across the province.
Rob Gillespie, the party's official agent responded to the Vancouver Sun article, and made an official complaint against the RCMP to Elections BC.
"Constable Yee was speaking on behalf of the RCMP Drug Awareness unit of BC," wrote Gillespie. "There is at least an implied threat here of forcible action by police (after all, they take no other kind) against anyone who would publicly support the BC Marijuana Party and its 'irresponsible' platform."
The Vancouver Sun failed to print any of Gillespie's concerns.
In the Nelson-Creston district, where I ran as a candidate with the BCMP, police told the local Nelson Daily News that we had used highly corrosive lye to burn a marijuana party sign into the side of two Nelson hillsides. "You are not going to see that type of damage or disrespect for the environment handed out by the Liberal Party, the NDP or the Green Party," said Nelson City Police Sergeant Henry Paivarinta. When the "highly corrosive lye" turned out to be lime, a harmless substance used in gardens and on soccer fields to mark lines, the Nelson Daily News had the courtesy to print my reaction.
On the bus
One tool for fixing public attention was the "Cannabus," a powerful political touring bus that had seen use from political heavyweights including Jesse Ventura, the pro-wrestler turned Minnesota governor, Bill Vander Zalm, former BC Socred premier, and Ronald Reagan, the US president infamous for breathing new life into the drug war during the 80's. Reagan's seal of office still decorates the bus' door, and just inside the door is a DEA badge, a relic placed there by the bus' owner, Chris Lord, who was once a member of the drug-hating organization.
I had a chance to talk to Lord one night when the bus rolled through my riding to the cheers and appreciation of crowds in every city. Lord recalled how a friend of his had died of AIDS, and how cannabis helped to relieve the suffering and lack of appetite. Lord's experience inspired him to help another friend, the grandmotherly Mavis Becker, with her campaign, and when Becker insisted that Lord help the entire party, he agreed, sending him on a month-long tour of the province with Marijuana Party Leader Brian Taylor.
"The bus trip was a magical mystery tour," said Taylor after the election. "I think that getting out there and shaking hands with people in these towns made an impact in rural areas. People were just magnetized to us. Wherever we stopped, people would wander over to us and tell us their stories. We had a guy in Nakusp, totally in tears, because police had ruined his life, harassed him using their 'discretionary power.' We had lots of storekeepers and small business people saying, 'right on, let's get this sorted out before we all go broke out here,' because marijuana dollars keep their businesses afloat.
"We also had angry parents," explained Taylor. "We had a situation where a parent came up to us totally enraged, having accused one of us of offering to sell drugs to her teenage boy in the park. What had happened was that some young kid had gotten some buttons and promotional material from us, and was out there posing as a representative of the party and being irresponsible. The lesson we learned from that is we were basically a bomb waiting to go off. We always had that potential of being harassed or creating a scandal, that feeling of being on the edge."
The bus was a boost to John Gordon's campaign in the Vancouver-Kensington district, where popular radio station Rock 101 and CTV teamed up to spend the day riding with Gordon, Marc Emery, and Brian Taylor.
Gordon admitted to me that his campaign also left him feeling "on the edge" at times. Like when "kids came in with guns" to his home, forced him and friends to the floor and stole bongs, weed and cash. Or like when he participated in a free-trade demonstration on the US border, but refrained from crossing the border with other protesters for a sit-in, because of the marijuana medicine he carried in his pocket. "I didn't want to confuse issues," he later explained.
Early in the election, a web site called BCVotes, operated as a collaboration between the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers and BCTV, ran an online poll which showed the BC Marijuana Party tied with the Liberals at about 30% of the vote each. Within days, the poll was erased and replaced.
The BCMP conducted their own polls. "Our own polling data on marijuana shows that even the riding with the lowest base of support agree 52% with the BC Marijuana Party message on legalizing marijuana? to a high of 78%," reported Marc Emery early in the election. Other polls, said Emery, showed the BCMP with widespread support for all platforms.
Yet to reach the people of British Columbia, the BCMP would have to go through media mogul Israel Asper, who owns Canwest Global, a conglomerate of media companies that includes BC's major TV station and only two provincial newspapers (BCTV, the Province, and the Vancouver Sun) as well as twelve other major metropolitan papers and over 120 local papers across Canada. Asper's interests were decidedly Liberal: he was the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party from 1970 to '75, and was elected twice under the Liberal banner to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly.
When the pot party did get press in Canwest papers, it was usually to spin the party as, in the words of Vancouver Sun reporter Doug Ward, "in some ways right of the BC Liberal Party or its two federal cousins, the federal Liberals and the Canadian Alliance." Far too right to appeal to the average voter. Yet in other districts the media was calling us too left wing. This was the case in my own district, where I strongly supported all the same platforms as other BCMP candidates.
The BC Marijuana Party executive also complained about the bias of the media's polling techniques. All of the polls commissioned by Asper's media outlets excluded the BCMP from the list of parties given as choices. The polling company admitted to BCMP representatives that not prompting for the BCMP would affect our share of the final vote. Yet despite this, the party was polling unprompted at 3%, tied with the Unity Party, which was included on the poll's choices.
BCMP Leader Brian Taylor lodged a complaint against Compas with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and made a press release.
"The voters are being misled by the major media outlets," Taylor complained fruitlessly. "The media and the large polling outfits are working together to commit what amounts to massive electoral fraud. I dare the media to give voters a real poll and give them a chance to choose the BC Marijuana Party among the list of the established parties."
Most importantly, the BC Marijuana Party were also excluded from the party leaders' debate on BCTV, a debate which included the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens and the Unity Party.
"BCTV never explained why the excluded us," said Deputy Leader Dana Larsen. "Only us, the NDP and the Liberals had candidates in every single riding, and even with the biased polls we were still showing a tie with the Unity Party. They just arbitrarily said that four was enough."
On April 30, the evening of the debate, BC Marijuana Party candidates and supporters protested outside of the BCTV station. On the station's front lawn was a massive Liberal sign, a testament to BCTV's bias from the beginning of the election. The Liberals also had their own people on hand, referred to by insiders as "rent-a-crowd", which travelled in unmarked cars and arrived ahead of the Liberal campaign tour to promote the illusion of enthusiastic gatherings at every stop.
"We were outnumbered by the Liberals," recalled Siefken. "We had good numbers, but they would try to crowd around us and get between us and the media. BCTV had a lot of cameras out there, but I don't believe they were interested in making news, because they gave us very little coverage of the protest, and the coverage we did get was extremely edited and biased."
According to Larsen, the Sun and Province newspapers failed to so much as mention the Marijuana Party protest, although they did print a line about a smaller protest by labour organizers that was also held at the station during the debate that same day.
In a futile attempt to appear unbiased, BCTV allowed the BC Marijuana Party to attend a discussion for the "smaller" parties. Larsen represented the BCMP against representatives from the Reform and Action Parties. The smaller party forum was aired during a slot with extremely low viewing and punctuated regularly with commercials for Liberal candidates.
The BCMP did participate in a leaders' debate on the national CBC TV station. The party was represented by Marc Emery, but the debate was boycotted by both Liberal Leader Campbell and NDP Leader Dosanjh.
Schism and victory
Early in the election, the BCMP's own telephone polls had showed it with up to 30% in some regions, about ten times the support registered in Compas polls. But with mounting media manipulations, the numbers had slowly dropped.
After a difficult election, the BC Marijuana Party had captured about 3% of the total vote, including a high of 9% for candidate Paul Renaud in the riding of Peace River North. We hadn't won a single seat, but there were still many victories to celebrate.
About 53,000 British Columbians felt so strongly about ending the drug war that they would elect a government for that purpose. People all across the province were educated about the dangers of prohibition. In some cases, our opponents ? having heard our platforms throughout the election ? took up the marijuana cause on our behalf. The party received media coverage across Canada and around the world, including a profile in one of Turkey's top magazines.
The labour pains of the Marijuana Party were hard enough for it to give birth to twins. Soon after the election, Party Leader Brian Taylor announced that he would be leaving the BC Marijuana Party and starting another, tentatively named the Liberal-Democratic party. Both Emery and Taylor spoke highly of each-other ? during and after the break-up ? and both expressed their differences largely as a matter of strategy. Taylor believes that a different party structure and name will be more effective in bringing an end to the drug war. Emery believes that the Marijuana Party's current course will yield better, more focused results. Yet both see each other as cooperating in the future, and both were optimistic about the May 16 election results.
Even as election results poured in, BCMP candidates began looking for some new way to push the envelope and protest the drug war. Eventually it was decided that the BCMP would sponsor compassion clubs all across BC, bringing medicine to the sick and dying. BCMP candidates, many with no previous experience in fighting the drug war, bravely jumped on board. Many BCMP candidates are enthusiastically looking forward to running for mayor and council, as municipal elections loom across the province in November 2002.
For many who ran with the BC Marijuana Party, activism has become more than a pastime ? it has become a way of life.
INTERNATIONAL POT POLITICS
By Dana Larsen
The BC Marijuana Party is not the only pro-pot political party which has run candidates in recent elections. In England, Australia,Israel and New Zealand, freedom-loving tokers have banded together to fight for their rights in the political arena.
The UK Legalise Cannabis Alliance (UK-LCA) has been fielding candidates for federal and local UK elections since 1999. In the July 2001 general election, the UK-LCA ran 13 candidates for Parliament, taking between 1% to 2.5% of the vote in their ridings. They also ran four candidates for county councils, each taking between 3.5% to 7% of the vote.
Australia's Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party was formed in 1993, and now has branches in the Autralian states of New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.
HEMP has contested a number of state and federal elections, the most recent being in March 2001 when they ran a candidate in a by-election for the federal seat of Ryan, taking 2.3% of the vote. They also intend on running a candidate in a July by-election for the federal seat of Aston.
In the 1999 Israeli general elections, the newly formed Ale-Yarok Party (literally translated as "Green Leaf Party") received about 34,000 votes, just over 1% of the overall vote. Had they received 1.5% of the vote they would have been awarded two seats in the Israeli Parliament.
According to Dan Goldenblatt, Secretary-General for Ale-Yarok, the party is now pushing a lawsuit for libel against a wealthy businessman who sponsored full page ads in major Israeli papers. The ads slandered Ale-Yarok, claiming they are "poisoning our children."
New Zealand's Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party fielded 17 candidates in the 1999 federal NZ elections, gathering about 1% of the vote. A minimum of 5% is needed to gain Parliamentary seats under NZ's special system of proportional representation.
The 1999 election also saw the election of Nandor Tanzcos, a NORML activist and co-owner of Auckland's The Hemp Store who was running under the Green Party banner. Tanzcos is the world's first Rastafarian MP, and has brought a great deal of attention to the cannabis issue in New Zealand.
? UK Legalise Cannabis Alliance: PO Box 198, Norwich, UK, NR2 2DE; tel 01-603-442-215; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web www.lca-uk.org
? HEMP Australia: Michael Balderstone, tel 02-6689-1842; email email@example.com
? Ale-Yarok: POB 1454, Even-yehuda, Israel 40500; tel 972-52-451-451; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web www.ale-yarok.org.il/html/indexe.html
? Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party: ALCP, PO Box 27-315, Wellington, New Zealand; tel 04-934-9389; web www.alcp.org.nz