It has been three weeks since the election that brought Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party a majority government in Canada. This was a devastating result for our community that we all fought hard to prevent. I have been relatively silent since that fateful day. That is because this result changed everything for us strategically and I wanted to have a clear idea of where to go from here before moving forward.
The basic outline of our strategy going forward is as follows:
1. Join the NDP or Liberal Party and get active within those parties;
2. Build local WhyProhibition.ca activism groups;
3. Join local non-profits and get active within the community; and
4. Engage in strategic litigation to end prohibition through the courts.
In short, our goal is to build bridges with other groups in society, especially at the local level. We need to reach out to other groups, work with them and learn from them. There exists a higher level of support for marijuana legalization than for most other issues but we are missing the organizational strengths of other groups.
This strategy will help us in two specific ways. The first is that it trains us for the next election. The second is that it helps us build the strength locally to defend the gains we have made in the past 15 years (specifically and especially compassion clubs, seed shops, vapor lounges, mass-rallies and bong shops).
Here is how we will carry out this strategy:
What Does A Conservative Majority Mean?
There are many who say that Stephen Harper can do whatever he wants with a majority, and while this is generally true, options remain open to us and our allies in Parliament. One of the primary tools used by opposition parties is the filibuster.
A filibuster is when opposition parties slow down the progress of Parliament by making very long speeches in order to delay votes. Both the NDP and Liberals in the House of Commons and the Liberals in the Senate can use the filibuster to delay mandatory minimum sentencing laws like S-10. We will need your help to encourage them to do exactly that.
While the House of Commons will sit for the next four years, typically their schedule is divided up into multiple “sessions” of Parliament. Sessions typically last one to two years and are broken up by “proroguing” Parliament. When a session ends, all bills that haven't passed die, so it isn't as if the NDP and Liberals have to filibuster for four years. There is a good chance we can delay specific bills like mandatory minimum sentencing laws enough to defeat them.
There is a limit to this tactic, called a “closure” motion. This is a motion to end debate and force a vote. These closure motions are typically not well received by the media and tend to bring about accusations of being anti-democratic. Mr. Harper is already tarnished by that accusation, but may want to avoid being tarnished further. Only time will tell on this, but it seems doubtful even he would use closure on a regular basis.
The possibility of filibustering Mr. Harper’s dangerous agenda is why it is more important than ever for people to get involved in a mainstream political party (the NDP or the Liberals). While the Greens and the Bloc Quebecois have representation in the House, they are both severely limited because they do not have “official party status” (more than 12 seats). This means they cannot ask questions during Question Period, do not sit on Parliamentary committees, and have very limited abilities in the House of Commons.
Why Get Involved?
Politicians and political parties are just like other groups of people. Imagine this: if a random person called you on the phone and asked for a favour, would you do it? What if a good friend called you and asked for a favour? Politicians, like anyone else, favour people they know over people they do not. This is just human nature.
This is exactly how politics works. We need to work with these politicians and political parties if we are going to ask them to do things for us. That means joining the NDP or the Liberals, getting active with your local boards, and volunteering to help them work within the community. Not only does this gain us friends in those parties, but it also is the best political training we can get.
By working within these parties, we can train ourselves — and be trained by the parties — to be much more effective activists. These parties are experts at communicating with the public, organizing for political action and fundraising. We can learn a lot from them on how to better organize our community and get our message across to those who would support us if they understood our issue better. We can also build important relationships that, over time, will greatly enhance our credibility and effectiveness.
As a side benefit, this kind of volunteering looks great on a resume. When you can add lines like “Board of Directors” or “Volunteer Coordinator” to your list of activities, it says to an employer that you know how to work on a team and have valuable management skills.
Joining these political parties is a win-win-win:
1. You win by getting free training on activism and a great line for your resume.
2. The movement wins because we gain friends in the political parties we need to help us slow Harper down.
3. The political parties win by bringing in new and motivated activists.
Even though Mr. Harper has a majority, there is still a lot we can do at the federal level. Indeed, there is an argument that we can actually do more now federally than ever before to help legalize marijuana.
During the past five years, both the NDP and the Liberals have been faced with the constant threat of an election and have stayed on fairly-stable footing in the media. Nobody wanted to say the wrong thing because, at any given moment, an election could come. This is no longer the case. The NDP and Liberals may be far more open to expanding their platforms and expanding their ideology now that they have four years before another election.
It is typically during these inter-election periods that new and innovative policy is developed. This is our opportunity to make sure that ending the drug war is one of those policies. The only way we can do that is by joining these parties and working with them to expand their policies.
How Do We Do It?
First, go to the website of either the NDP or the Liberals and, using a credit card, sign up for a membership in the party. If you don't have a credit card, you can get a temporary (prepaid) card at most pay-day loan businesses. Otherwise, you can get a regular credit card from most banks. Finally, both parties accept checks and/or money orders if you join by mail. There are often reduced membership rates for students, seniors and those struggling economically.
Once you've signed up, you can look up information about your local Riding Association (also known as Electoral District Association or Constituency Association) to find contact information. Send the individual listed (usually the President) an email saying you would like to get involved or call to introduce yourself. Most of these local associations meet on a monthly basis. If you have difficulty getting in contact with your riding association send me an email and I will try to help you (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Once you are in contact with your riding association, you can usually join their Board of Directors (also called an Executive) simply by asking to join. Some will make you wait for the AGM (Annual General Meeting) but most will not. The vast majority of these boards have vacant seats and are usually looking to get new people involved.
Once you've joined the Board, you're in! The Board of Directors often has a lot of influence in selecting the candidate who may run in that riding, what policy proposals go to the party’s annual convention for voting by the entire party membership and who gets to go to that convention. If you have the opportunity, I strongly recommend people attend these conventions (especially the NDP Convention this June in Vancouver). This can be an amazing political education and experience, and is a great networking opportunity. Remember, it is about building relationships.
The more active you become in the party, the more influence you have and the more valuable experience you gain, which you can use to help us legalize marijuana and end drug prohibition! It really is a win-win-win situation.
All Politics Are Local
The steps listed above cover what we can do federally over the next few years but if we're going to succeed as a culture and a movement we must do more than rely on the federal political system. We must also get active in provincial and local politics.
The various provincial governments are responsible for paying the costs of Mr. Harper's so-called “tough on crime” agenda and most of the provinces are in dire financial straights. There are few if any provinces in Canada that can afford to pay the price of these crime bills and all it takes is some political “cover” for the provinces to push back against the Harper Conservatives.
Provincially, this involves much the same tactics as outlined above: join the provincial parties and get active. This is especially true in British Columbia, where both major parties are generally against expanding the drug war and tend to understand the arguments in favour of legalization. However, there is also much that can be done in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and to a lesser extent Alberta and the Prairies.
One of the best things you can do to help pressure the provincial government is to organize within your own community. This is critical and can not be overstated: We need to organize locally.
Local governments in Canada are responsible for paying for policing and are the most easily influenced by community activists. Voter turnout in municipal elections can often be quite small, and it does not take a lot of people or resources to influence the results. City councillors and Mayors, like all politicians, want to get re-elected.
We need to organize ourselves across Canada in the same way that we have organized ourselves in Vancouver. This means having regular meetings and discussions, get-togethers, and social events. It means building relationship and building a movement. We need you to help us build a cross-Canada community of activists and, in turn, this will directly help you in your municipality.
We are going to face a tough few years ahead, with compassion clubs, seed shops, bong shops, and harm reduction programs all facing possible closure in the face of an emboldened Conservative political machine.
We need to be organized on the ground and ready to respond. That way, if there is pressure on these groups, we can fight back and keep them open. For those of you in cities and towns without these businesses and groups, we need you to get active so that you can start one of these businesses of your own.
The key to our movement’s survival is going to be how well we can continue to organize on the local level.
What Can We Do To Build Local Strength?
Monthly meetups are a great first step. If you have a bong-shop or other marijuana-themed business in your community, ask if they will host your meeting. If not, you can get free space at local libraries, colleges or universities, or simply host at someone's house or apartment. This does not have to be overly complicated. For example, a movie night can bring people together, attract new participants and be educational.
If you live in a small area without a lot of other pot-people, this is an awesome opportunity to meet new people and start your own activist group. These regular get-togethers generate energy, motivation, and passion and make being active much easier. It is always more fun to attend, for example, an NDP meeting if you can take two or three of your friends (and way more fun if you can take five to ten).
Try to have these meetings every month or even more often. Some of the earliest marijuana activist groups in Canada started as a few friends who would get together on weekends to smoke joints, play games and talk politics. The social bonds established, and the conversations held, spurned those groups on to greater and more organized activism. Activism and activist meetings should be informative and fun, so enjoy yourselves! This goes back to the same logic as interacting with politicians. If someone you know from a stodgy monthly meeting asks you for a favour would you do it? How about someone you have fun hanging out with regularly? We build stronger activism by building stronger relationships.
When it comes time for protest season, and for events like 4/20, you'll have a ready-made group to hold your protest!
To help get you started on this path we have the WhyProhibition.ca Shout-Out feature (whyprohibition.ca/content/shout-out). This exciting activist tool allows you to email everyone on our list who lives near you to invite to your meetings.
Here is a story to illustrate how this can work:
During Marc Emery's “Summer of Legalization” tour in 2003, I attended the event in Prince George, BC a town of some 80,000. I found that a bunch of people I knew from school were there. Each of us came down with a couple of friends but none of us knew that the other groups even smoked marijuana, let alone engaged in activism.
After that smoke-in at the RCMP office, we all started to hang out more and would meet up to smoke a couple of joints, chat and go to protests like 4/20. We built a community and by doing so, we each became stronger.
This is exactly what can happen if you start your own local groups. You're likely to find out that people you know are also active in the movement, but you just didn't realize it. This can be a great way to expand your circle and encourage more people to get active. For those of you living in smaller towns, this can be a godsend, if for no other reason than it confirms that “we are not alone”.
This is especially key in the three places in Canada with the highest number of canna-businesses: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. These cities have gained the most from activism but also have the most to lose. If we do not create larger groups in these centres, everything we have fought for in the past 15 years could disappear.
WhyProhibition.ca Can Help
We built WhyProhibition.ca with exactly this type of grass-roots campaigning in mind in order to not only fight the Harper Conservatives on the federal level but also on the ground. We are offering our software free to every local activist group. Send me an email and we will create a local group for you complete with website and mass-email system. If you want to go even simpler you can just sign up with your friends to WhyProhibition.ca and use the Shout-Out system to keep in contact.
This is a critical part of our strategy going forward. We need local WhyProhibition.ca groups in every community working to sign up people in their local area if we are going to keep our cannabis culture safe.
To make things a bit more easy to understand, let me outline how this will work in Vancouver. You can then use this formula for your community:
First, we have been using WhyProhibition.ca to track user signups and identify which methods work best to get new activists signed up. While protests and social media campaigns are effective, they are also highly general (in that they bring in people from all areas, but not specific areas). Postering (putting up posters in high-traffic areas) is highly effective and highly targetable. It seems in this era of mobile internet access, people see posters on the street and quickly head to the website listed. This is especially true on major transit routes, probably due to people waiting for the bus/train and using the time to satisfy their curiosity about the poster they just saw.
Because of this we will be engaging in a major postering campaign along major transit routes throughout Vancouver and the lower mainland. We will be making these posters very simple, along the lines of a large marijuana leaf, the word legalize, and the website. The poster will likely also include a mobile barcode for cell-phones. We will make a .pdf of our poster available for anyone to use, so help build support in your community by putting up posters!
We will also be making use of handbills across Vancouver, leaving them at every business that will accept them. This technique was used to great benefit last year when we distributed handbills to many businesses throughout the West End of Vancouver, resulting in a significant uptick in new members from that area.
We are also asking to put up posters and handbills at all marijuana-related businesses in the area, including and especially bong shops, seed shops and compassion clubs. So far, all but a small few have agreed to help us end prohibition. We will be publishing a list of activist-friendly canna-businesses and we encourage all of you to shop there. Help those who help our movement.
We will be following up this outreach with monthly activism seminars at the BC Marijuana Party Lounge, the Vancouver Cannabis Dispensary, and if turnout requires more space, using lecture theatres at the local university campus.
We will use these seminars to educate activists about specific ways to get involved, to answer questions about activism, and to conduct team-building between fellow activists.
Sometimes the seminars will be more educational: a five minute intro to a topic by a moderator, break-out discussions where groups of 3-5 talk about the topic for 5-10 minutes, a 20-minute group discussion, followed by a 5-10 minute wrap up by the moderator. Other seminars will be more practical, such as going postering or doing outreach to businesses for an hour. Other's still will be more social, meeting up to play games or watch an activism-themed movie at a vapour lounge. The content of these seminars can be fairly organic, and should always be made to fit the people you have on hand. If no one in your group is comfortable doing a moderated educational seminar, send me an email and we can do one online. If your group doesn't want to watch a movie at a vapour lounge, then go out and put up posters, or watch at a persons house.
The form of these monthly meetups isn't as important as making sure they happen. Do what works for you and your group, and remember to have fun with a mind to getting more active! Part of the reason that Vancouver has been so successful is that our activists get together at the Cannabis Culture HQ on a very regular basis (often daily), going back to the 1990s. The community that frequents CCHQ is constantly coming up with new ideas and inspiring new activists. Conversations aren't always on the topic of legalizing marijuana, but inevitably they turn to politics and become highly educational.
We have already seen great results since we started to mass-mobilize in Vancouver. Our relations with City Hall have greatly improved, and resulted in support for our permits for this year's 4/20 rally.
We learned from these experiences that the more people we have in an area, the more power we have. This applies most locally, with local governments far more responsive to community pressure, but also at the provincial and federal levels.
Our goal then must be to organize locally as much as possible. For this, we will need your help.
What Can You Do To Help?
Download and put up our posters, handbills and other promotional materials and use the Shout-Out feature of the website to engage those local people and get them active!
Once you have your local groups established, hold a protest and send out press releases (email me if you need some help with this). This is one of the best ways of getting your message out to a larger audience, and gives you the ability to speak to the public at large. Keep your messaging tight, and the media will give you great coverage. Tight messaging — controlling what you and your spokespeople say — is important for many reasons.
In a given news segment or article, there is limited space available and either a time limit or a word limit. Since we know there is a limit, and usually a short one, we must focus what we say to be as direct and succinct as possible. For example, if we know that we have about 10 seconds to get our point across, we give the media only 10 seconds worth of messaging — ideally in the form of pre-rehearsed talking points. The alternative, giving them say 60 seconds of material, allows the reporter or an editor to pick which 10 seconds get covered and which 50 get cut. If you want to get your point out there, don't give the reporter the option of choosing something else. Keep it short, stay focused, and the result is control of our message.
Another critical point is to understand your audience, and what will and will not be effective messaging. For example, protests do not have to be smoke-ins and, indeed, are not always effective as smoke-ins. Calgary420 has done amazing work and has never held a smoke-in. Just 10 people with signs, hand-outs and a couple of chants (examples: “No More Drug War” or “We're Here, We're High, Get Used To It”) can be enough to get front-page coverage in your local paper or news broadcast.
Remember that the average nay-sayer likes to paint marijuana activists as slow, dull, and spaced-out. Show up in a suit or nice clothes, speak clearly and concisely, and make it impossible for them to dismiss you. Remember your audience. We are not trying to convince other activists — they already support us. We are trying to convince people that are on the fence, don’t support us or simply don’t know enough about our issue to have a real opinion.
These local protests will be highly important in the coming years. The typical member of the public — about 85% - does not follow politics closely. Many of these people voted Conservative because of a perception that giving Harper a majority would create stability. These people may, in the next election, base their feeling on the stability of Harper's government on the number of protests they perceive. We can't do this alone, but we can work with other groups to help show the population that Stephen Harper cares more about ideology than stability.
Go Outside Our Community
Another local tactic we suggest is to engage with civil society groups. This means working with other non-profits, activist groups, and others in your community who are fighting for change. This may be groups like the Salvation Army, your local church, mosque, synagogue or temple, advocacy groups like Green Peace or the Sierra Club, or my personal favourite: civil rights groups like the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (www.bccla.org) or Pivot Legal Society (www.pivotlegal.org)
We’ve had great success in Vancouver by working with other civil society groups and I encourage you to do the same. This is as simple as finding groups you want to work with and starting to attend their meetings. The logic is the same as with political parties: attend meetings, get involved, build relationships and gain influence with people outside our movement These civil society groups have a lot to teach us about activism and have usually gained some important contacts in government and other influential organizations. We help them by bringing in activists and they help us by training them and giving them access.
Once you are involved with these civil society groups, you will begin to meet other activists working in your city. These can be some of our best allies, as they already have a great deal of expertise, our job is to connect with them and try to bring them into the fold of drug policy activism. You can make great alliances with these groups and their activists, and that can in turn be a big help to our movement.
Imagine for example a bust of a compassion club. Horrible news, and something that will have our organization and others protesting and sending out press-releases. Now, how powerful would it be if after a bust of a compassion club it wasn't just “marijuana activists” commenting in the press, but other groups. Imagine your local church coming out against a compassion club raid on the grounds that it hurts the sick and poor. Imagine your local civil rights organization getting involved in the legal case. Imagine the local politician you met at one of these civil society group meetings speaking up for our cause. This is exactly the reality we can create by reaching out and working with other activist groups in our community.
If your community is anything like Vancouver, you'll soon realize how “small” a town you live in; you'll start to see the same people at various different meetings. Getting involved with the community activist “core” in your community is an important goal. Not only does this help our movement, but it also helps you. Like working with political parties, the work you do for civil society groups looks great on a resume, and the contacts you make often give you a person interested in your resume.
When Government Will Not Help, The Courts Might
Another major avenue of our activism, and one that depends crucially on our ability to be organized, is court actions in the form of strategic litigation. Every day people across Canada are subject to cruel and horrific treatment because of the drug war and if we don't hear about these rights violations we can't fight them.
Now, not every case is going to be a winner, and not every case is one we can get involved in, but knowing what's happening to people is crucial even if it does not itself result in a court case.
What do I mean?
Let's say you are illegally searched; the officer finds a small amount of marijuana and arrests you. While it is unlikely that you will face prosecution in many areas of the country — and therefore unlikely that the illegal search will ever be challenged in court — your experience described in an affidavit or sworn statement could help build a case for someone else. Furthermore, if the Harper crime laws are as bad as we think they will be, we will be considering a class-action lawsuit against the government for violating our right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. In our view, nine months for growing a single cannabis plant or 18 months for making a gram of bubble hash, is far too harsh a punishment for such a “crime”.
Please let us know about these kinds of cases and incidents in your local community so that we can continue to build an evidentiary base for future litigation.
Of course, the court process is highly expensive and we will need help to fundraise for these crucial pieces of strategic litigation.
It is important to note that many, and perhaps most, of the major changes in law in the past 30 years, from abortion legalization to same-sex marriage to medical marijuana, have come through the courts. These kinds of cases are perhaps our best avenue to succeed under the current Harper Conservative regime.
The key to success in the courts will come down to the ability to gather affidavits, the ability to fundraise, and the efforts of supportive lawyers such as Kirk Tousaw, Paul Lewin, Ron Marzel, John Conroy and Alan Young, among others. But litigation is a double-edged sword. Bad cases can result in bad law, and we will be choosing our battles wisely. Unfortunately, the uncertainty around certain aspects of the marijuana laws — primarily the medical marijuana regime — has created an environment where people can be taken advantage of by those promising quick-fix legal victories that sometimes sound too good to be true. As a community, it is important not to divert resources away from serious cases that have a real chance of success, so we suggest taking amateur legal advice from non-lawyers with a large grain of salt, and not investing time, money or your efforts too heavily in something nobody with a legal degree is willing to touch.
Here we are: we have some specific tactics laid out before us, and we in Vancouver will be following this general framework for the next four years. We believe it is vital that others do the same, and implore everyone across Canada to work to defend the progress our movement has made in the past 15 years.
A note of warning is apt.
During the 1960s and 1970s, marijuana and other drugs were almost legalized. Our movement for justice had almost won. Then along came a right-wing wave through the 1980's with Ronald Reagan in the United States, Brian Mulroney in Canada, and Margret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. All the progress that was made before the 1980s was erased because people failed to act to protect it.
When Marc Emery kickstarted marijuana activism again in Canada, it was as if our movement began from square one. Books and magazines were illegal; bongs too. Seeds were impossible to find, and there was no such things as a compassion club, let alone a medical marijuana program. Marc and activists like him fought long and hard for 15 years to bring about the social and cultural conditions that now exist. A majority of Canadians support legalizing marijuana. More than voted for Harper and his Conservatives. More than voted for any person, or any party. We have the cultural momentum, despite our recent electoral disappointment, and it is critical that we not let the 1980s happen again. We must get active, we must work harder than ever and we must continue to build our movement, or our children will be left to start it all over again.
Please get involved, get active, and help save our cannabis culture.
Those of us based in Vancouver will be fighting to make sure we don't fall backward. We need to make progress and we need you to please make sure your local community makes progress too. If you live in major population centres such as Toronto or Montreal, this is especially important. We must continue to build our movement. Do not give in to squabbles, do not give in to hopelessness. Fight on, be strong, and we will rise again.
-Jacob Hunter, WhyProhibition.ca
WhyProhibition.ca is a project of the Beyond Prohibition Foundation:
142 - 757 W. Hastings, Suite 211
Vancouver, BC V6C1A1