IS THE MARIJUANA PARTY GOING UP IN SMOKE?
Defection Of Members, Changing Views May Render Party Obsolete
Heathcliff Campbell came very close to dropping out of the federal election race. Last week, the Marijuana Party of Canada candidate for Vancouver Centre was approached by marijuana activist Marc Emery, who tried to convince Campbell to throw his support toward New Democrat candidate Svend Robinson. Campbell admits Emery made a convincing argument.
"I agree that there shouldn't be division in the ranks," says Campbell. "It's even more disconcerting for the public at large to see the two [marijuana] parties not united. That can cause confusion in people's minds- and the public might be disillusioned with both of them and decide their support is best put elsewhere, and certainly that's not my aim."
After enjoying some initial success when it first splashed onto the national scene in the 2000 federal election, the Marijuana Party of Canada is now struggling for survival. The party has suffered from high-level defections and public disagreements with its provincial counterpart, and as the major political parties adopt a more liberal stance on cannabis, the Marijuana Party of Canada may no longer even be relevant.
In the 2004 election, the federal Marijuana Party attracted 0.2 per cent of the national vote, down from 0.5 per cent in the 2000 election.
This year the party is running only 23 candidates, after having run at least 70 in the previous two elections. Its founding leader, Marc-Boris St-Maurice, quit the party last year to join the Liberal party. Now, the B.C. Marijuana Party has thrown its support behind the federal NDP party.
However, the Marijuana Party's few surviving members say it still has a place in Canadian politics. With some of the major parties proposing varying degrees of decriminalization ( the Conservative party wants tougher laws ), the Marijuana Party is still one of the few voices advocating full legalization.
Campbell's platform is unique to any other candidate in his riding. Aside from full legalization, he says marijuana should be distributed to people who can demonstrate a genuine medical need for the drug; hemp should be used as a cash crop for farmers to revitalize the rural industry; and he wants to turn his campaign office into a compassion club -- something other Marijuana Party candidates have tried in past elections without success.
It's for these reasons that Campbell says he's decided to stick it out for the election. Even so, it's officially too late to withdraw his name from the ballot.
"I'm simply offering voters another choice out there," says Campbell, "because some people feel it's just too much to come right out and openly support the federal Marijuana Party candidate. So this way they've got the alternate choice in Svend Robinson and the NDP."
But Campbell's decision is little conciliation for Emery, who ran as a federal Marijuana Party candidate in Vancouver Centre in the 2000 election, but has been campaigning for the federal NDP party since 2003.
However, Robinson's campaign manager says they have had no contact with Emery.
One of Canada's most prominent marijuana activists, Emery is currently facing extradition charges to the United States for selling marijuana seeds. He says the Vancouver Centre race will come down to the wire between Robinson and the Liberal's Hedy Fry, and the NDP needs every vote it can get.
"I'm disappointed that [the Marijuana Party] is, in fact, running candidates," says Emery. "Unfortunately, they're all eccentrics, typically, and they're all doing it for alternative reasons- and can't possibly provide any benefit to the marijuana community by running." ( Earlier this week, Emery became the target of an investigation by Elections Canada for failing to register as a third-party advisor for the NDP; a website he recently launched, eNDProhibition.ca, openly endorses the party. If found guilty, he could face jail time, but most likely he will just be fined. )
Emery says the NDP and the Green party have the most progressive policies on marijuana. The NDP wants amnesty for past possession convictions, reduction of fines for personal possession, and non-punitive measures for personal cultivation. The Green party wants to regulate marijuana as a product similar to alcohol and tobacco.
Both parties did not support the Liberal government's proposed decriminalization bill, which would fine people caught with less than 15 grams of pot. That bill would have withheld criminal charges while doubling the length of prison time for convicted growers. The bill died with the fall of the Liberal government.
But the Liberals' move toward decriminalization and the stronger support from the other parties, including the Bloc Quebecois, has turned marijuana legalization from a fringe issue into a mainstream policy. That could mean the Marijuana Party of Canada may have served its purpose and is no longer needed.
"I think the event will overtake [the Marijuana Party]," says Stephen Easton, a professor of economics for Simon Fraser University, who wrote a report for the Fraser Institute on marijuana growth in B.C. "The fact is that so many people have used marijuana and aren't screaming, slobbering lunatics. Eventually, this generation that has familiarity with marijuana will come to power, at which point [legalization] will just happen."
The Marijuana Party is running two candidates in Vancouver: Heathcliff Campbell in Vancouver Centre and Marc Boyer in Vancouver Quadra.