Pubdate: Fri, 03 Jan 2003
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)
Copyright: 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Author: Mike Lewis
Bookmark: (Canadian Marijuana Party)
Bookmark: (Boje, Renee)


VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The door-kicking has stopped, as have the asset
forfeitures and harassment. Chris Bennett hasn't been arrested in weeks, nor
have any of his friends.

Yet, the 40-year-old Bennett isn't inclined to say the battle is won.

He's seen the police relax before. He's seen pot achieve a tenuous level of
respectability when a more liberal-minded mayor or police chief takes over.
And he's seen the subsequent backlash.

"Every time we talk to the press, something happens," he said, sitting in
the store he manages, The Marijuana Party Headquarters.

The store is three blocks from one of Vancouver's toniest shopping
districts. While Bennett talks, he selects a handful of sticky green
cannabis buds from a dense cluster the size of a hoagie. Pungent bluish haze
hangs in the air, and customers casually put flame to pipe as they flip
through books about hydroponics.

"I've had friends arrested the next day after talking to reporters about
pot. So you can see why I'm nervous."

Nervous but willing to talk. In spite of Bennett's concern, the likelihood
of marijuana legalization in Canada never has been stronger -- despite
strong U.S. government objections and opposition from within the country.

A working medical marijuana law is in place nationally. Late last year, both
the House of Commons and Canadian Senate in official reports endorsed some
form of pot legalization, as have the justice minister and prime minister.

Indeed, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon recently promised to ease marijuana
laws in 2003, making possession of a small amount punishable with the
equivalent of a parking ticket.

In Vancouver, this already has happened, if not in law, then in practice.
Although cannabis remains illegal and its possession is a criminal offense,
the city effectively has decriminalized it. Police rarely bust the dozens of
dealers selling grams of pot and hashish on East Hastings Street. On a
Sunday afternoon, pot is nearly as easy to buy as a six-pack of beer.

All of which has made east downtown Vancouver -- where The Marijuana Party
storefront sits sandwiched between cafes named The New Amsterdam and Blunt
Bros. (motto: A Respectable Joint) -- a bit smokier and, judging from the
number of signs offering "munchies," a bit hungrier, too.

"Dude, the cookies rock," said Justin B., a 24-year-old Seattle resident
sitting at a cribbage board in Blunt Bros. while his buddies lit up in the
cafe's rear-corner smoking booth.

Standing against a backdrop of Grateful Dead iconography, dozens of
centerfold-style posters of pot plants and cases of translucent glass pipes,
Justin, who asked that his last name not be printed, said he loves Vancouver
because the police "let (pot) smokers be."

Which is what U.S. and Washington state authorities fear. Justin is the
embodiment of U.S. drug czar John Walters' nightmare.

Walters, fresh from a recent trip to Vancouver to explain to the Canadians
how wrongheaded their drug permissiveness is, believes that not only will
Americans flock to Canada for drug vacations, but that more pot will find
its way into the United States.

"Nothing gets better with more drug use," Walters said in a recent
interview. "I think you are seeing in Vancouver a level of denial (among
public officials) about marijuana's place among addictive drugs."

Walters' point: According to statistics from his office, pot, not alcohol,
is the No. 1 drug treatment issue among U.S. residents under age 18. Nearly
95 percent of the potent pot grown in British Columbia, known broadly as
"B.C. bud," heads to the United States for sale, a $4 billion annual

Even the medical claims of pot's usefulness largely are spurious, he added
- -- a statement hotly disputed by the medical marijuana community.

"I was told by a Canadian official they are sure pot doesn't create
dependency. That's archaic in the absurd," Walters said.

"You can walk down the streets in (downtown) Vancouver and the streets are
swarming with the openly addicted."

U.S. drug investigators agree. They point to a tent-city on East Hastings
that started as a protest to encourage low-income housing but in the past
month has become an open-air drug bazaar. Dave Rodriguez, who runs the
Seattle-based drug intelligence unit Northwest HIDTA (High Intensity Drug
Trafficking Area) team, said drug busts on the U.S.-Canadian border are
rising faster than on the Mexican border or the coast.

A decade ago, investigators seized 5,000 kilograms of Canadian pot annually.
Last year, agents confiscated 20,000 kilos.

"I can't see how that would improve if the Canadians legalize," Rodriguez
said from his downtown Seattle office. "People in Washington (state) should
be concerned."

But Canadian officials, including Kash Heed, the officer in charge of the
Vancouver Police vice division, wonder what Walters sees in Vancouver that
is so different from New York, Chicago or Seattle.

"Exactly what benefit has harsher penalties and 'Just Say No' brought?" asks
Heed, whose unusually aggressive push for legalization has alienated him
from some of his own officers. "They have addiction at the same rates we do.
For some things, we are lower."

Experts on all sides of the issue say the pot market in Canada is driven by
U.S. demand, and that many of the addicts in Canada are U.S. citizens.

Marc Emery, who has become his nation's Johnny Weed Seed with his
multimillion-dollar cannabis seed business, said three-quarters of his sales
are to U.S. customers, many from Washington state.

The 44-year-old Ottawa native said he's been jailed 10 times for the sale of
seeds, which he markets online.

Although the jailings recently have stopped, Emery said the government could
better spend its money on what he calls "real" criminals.

"I think people are starting to wake up and realize that it can be regulated
just like alcohol," he said.

With all of the same liabilities, others assert. Peter Ditchfield, who runs
the British Columbia Organized Crime Agency, said pot now is what alcohol
was during Prohibition in the United States -- readily available and largely
run by organized crime. Making it legal undercut the crime bosses, he
agreed, but the problems associated with abuse expanded.

"It becomes a question of what a society is willing to absorb," he said.
Canada, he said, always has been a more tolerant society than the United

But the pot issue cuts deeper than traditional Canadian tolerance and U.S.
anti-drug aggressiveness.

With the Bush administration sending signals to Ottawa that legalization
won't be good for diplomatic relations and with Walters blasting the
Canadians on their home turf during his November visit, some Canadians, even
those who don't favor legalization, have begun to see it as an issue of
national sovereignty.

Shopping on Robson Street, just a few blocks from The New Amsterdam,
Vancouver resident James Lee said he doesn't think pot should be legalized.
But Canadians resent the pressure from the United States on the drug issue,
he said.

"Some people will vote in favor of legalization just to spite the American
government," he said. "People don't like to be bullied."

Walters said that wasn't his intention. "I'm not presuming to tell Canadians
how to run their country."

The conflict isn't just between the United States and Canada, but within the
United States as well. Walters' stance and that of the federal government
have put the administration at odds with individual states. Various forms of
medical marijuana laws have passed in 14 states. In each case, the federal
government has said the measures are illegal.

The situation is most acute in California, where federal agents have raided
several medical marijuana clubs since the state's voters approved
Proposition 215 in 1996. The raids not only have placed federal
investigators in conflict with California Attorney General Bill Lockyer,
they also have created a new breed of political protester: the pot refugee.

Rene Boje knows this well. In May of 1998, she fled the United States after
the federal government busted her and three others for providing pot to two
men who were dying of cancer. Steven Kubby, a former Libertarian
gubernatorial candidate, also fled when he was busted for having pot to
minimize the side effects from his own cancer treatment.

Both say they thought they were protected under the voter-approved
initiative. And to an extent, California authorities left them alone. Then
came the raids. Both have applied for refugee status. It will be a test of
Canadian refugee laws, crafted to consider war and politics objectors, not
drug users.

"(The U.S. government) is trying to get me extradited for doing something
the voters said I could do," she said, sitting in the New Amsterdam. "The
government here is a lot more compassionate."

And tolerant -- at least in Vancouver. Emery said he thinks the time is
coming for limited legality of pot. Then, he said, everyone can see that it
doesn't create deeper societal problems. After that, he concludes, maybe the
big neighbor to the south will follow suit.

"George Bush isn't going to be president forever," said Emery, who owns the
Marijuana Party Headquarters where Bennett works. "We just have to keep the
flame alive until then."
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MAP posted-by: Josh