Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, is proving to be a nightmare for those who insist on fighting the war on drugs. From constitutional court challenges to the creation of the largest medicinal marijuana club in the country, this Pacific Coast city is full of activists who are organizing against the drug warriors. As a case in point, consider David Malmo-Levine, a Vancouver pot activist who is fighting to have Canada’s marijuana laws declared unconstitutional. The laws, he tells me, could be struck down by the end of this year.
“It could be as soon as early-December,” the 31-year-old predicts. “At the latest by mid-July (2003).”
This coming Fall, the Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to hear a constitutional challege against the country’s laws that prohibit both possession and trafficking of marijuana.
The historic legal challenge is being led by Malmo-Levine, who was charged in December 1996 for both possession and trafficking of marijuana, and two other men: Victor Eugene Caine, aka Randy Caine, and Ontario-resident Christopher Clay.
Rather than launch separate court actions, the three men, who were all charged with marijuana offences in separate incidents, will present a united constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. If they win, it could start a revolution in Canada’s approach to the war on drugs.
In the meantime, as he prepares for his historic Supreme Court battle, Malmo-Levine is busy working on another project, namely, informing his fellow citizens about the presence of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents on Canadian soil.
As we sit in a restaurant called Havana’s — an appropriate place to give the bird to Washington’s drug policy — Malmo-Levine begins his verbal assault on the U.S.
“They (the DEA) are in our country giving us bad advice,” he says. “Canada has always been morally ahead of the U.S. We did it with slavery, the women’s vote, alcohol prohibition, Cuba, Vietnam and the death penalty.” If things turn in his favour, we may soon add “drug prohibition” to this list.
For those in the U.S., who are accustomed to an insane anti-drug jihad, the upcoming Supreme Court of Canada case and anti-DEA work is pretty remarkable. If you travel north of the 49th parallel, however, you will quickly notice that there are many other initiatives being launched by Canadian activists to fight the war on drugs.
One such initiative is the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, a lobby group for intravenous drug users and former users that was founded in January 1998. The group, one of the largest of its kind in the world, has had a big impact since it came on the scene more than four years ago.
“The reduction in overdose deaths can be attributable to our work,” says Dean Wilson, president of VANDU.
The statistics support Wilson’s statement. Between January and May of this year, there were 21 fatal drug overdose deaths in Vancouver, according to the coroner’s office. During the same period last year the figure was 48.
The 2002 and 2001 figures, meanwhile, are significantly lower than the horrific overdose numbers of even a few years ago. In a story dated Aug. 11, 1998, the Associated Press reported that: “So far this year, 224 people in British Columbia — mostly from Vancouver’s skid-row areas — have died of overdoses, up 40 percent from last year.”
In response to the horrific level of death that plagued the city in the mid- to late-90′s, VANDU began to educate drug users about how to prevent overdoses. That is why if you walk by their needle exchange program today, you can hear VANDU volunteers tell drug users not to shoot up alone, as well as offering techniques on how to prevent the spreading of disease.
Through projects like the needle exchange, VANDU has lobbied local politicians and the police to adopt harm reduction models when dealing with drugs. They also give a voice to drug users, a segment of society that is normally left out when drug policies are debated.
As a sidenote, it’s interesting to note that harm reduction is now the official policy of the Vancouver Police Board. How much of a role VANDU played in the police board’s decision to adopt harm reduction is not clear. But as one member of VANDU put it: “It’s like asking whether the NAACP helped advance the cause of civil rights.”
Another person who has dedicated their life to helping people is Hilary Black, founder and co-director of the BC Compassion Club Society, Canada’s largest medicinal marijuana organization.
Five years ago, armed solely with a dream and backpack full of pot, Black began selling marijuana to Vancouver residents who were sick. After getting 100 clients, along with the backing of their doctors, Black went public with her idea to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Today, the Compassion Club has over 2,000 members and 35 employees. It is also meticulously clean — the reception area could pass for a dentist’s office filled with plants, if it weren’t for the board on the wall that listed the day’s selection of marijuana.
What is really interesting, however, is all the other options that the club offers to its members. Along with marijuana, patients can access a herbal pharmacy, certified counselors, a yoga program, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and many other medical treatments.
The story of Black, 26, is a wonderful example of what citizens can accomplish when they follow their conscience.
“We have a duty to protest laws that are unethical,” Black tells me in her office. “We have truth and justice on our side, and in this case the law does not have it.”
John Richardson, a local lawyer and founding member of Pivot Legal Society, would definitely agree with Black. It was a sense of justice that drove him to create Pivot, a non-profit organization in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside that is also challenging the narco warriors.
For the record, I am a University of British Columbia law student that volunteers for Pivot. That is why I’m talking shop with Richardson, 31, on a saturday afternoon over lunch.
“(In the fall of 2000) I was working in the downtown Eastside in strategic litigation for the Sierra Legal Defence Fund,” Richardson tells me after I ask him how he created Pivot. “The model that Sierra Legal uses — which is essentially aggressive legal advocacy for public interest — fit in perfectly with the downtown Eastside.”
While at Sierra Legal, an environmental law group, Richardson learned how to use the law to fight polluters and government bureaucrats. Through this experience he came across this idea: Why not use the same legal model as Sierra to defend drug users, sex trade workers and other marginalized persons?
Today, lawyers, law students and community activists all volunteer in various Pivot projects.
One such project is the affidavit program, which is based on a simple idea: Record in a legal format the story of any person that has suffered an illegal search and seizure, unconstitutional arrest or other form of police abuse. After the story has been written down, have the person swear before Richardson that the events described therein are true. Once this is done the story becomes evidence that can be used in a court of law.
Through this program, Pivot has been able to document police abuses against drug users. For instance, one person I talked to — let us call him Delphi Nguyen — was busted with $15 of heroin. The police never pressed charges, but they did take $740. Nguyen told me that this was his rent money, and that after losing it to the police was not able to pay his rent. As a result, he lost his apartment and was forced to sleep in his car as he scrambled for housing.
A team of lawyers is currently deciding what legal action to take with the increasing number of affidavits.
Pivot, meanwhile, is also distributing a “rights” card that outlines a person’s constitutional rights when detained by police. The business-size card is meant to fit in a pocket or wallet. Whenever a person is arrested, they can present the card to the officer. The card informs the police that they do not have to co-operate and that a person being detained has the right to remain silent and to speak to a lawyer.
The card is meant to protect people from such things as illegal drug searches and unconstitutional arrests, two police tactics that are very popular with the narco warriors.
Pivot’s projects, along with the work of VANDU and activists like Black and Malmo-Levine, show that Vancouver residents are busy fighting the war on drugs on several fronts.
For Malmo-Levine, the struggle is about challenging a failed policy that is costing Canadian taxpayers $500 million a year and is resulting in more than 30,000 charges for simple possession of marijuana.
For Wilson, the objective is to save lives, prevent disease and give a voice to drug users, a group that is normally marginalized from the drug debate but who suffer the full brunt of the law.
For Black, the goal is to educate people about how marijuana and other forms of alternative medicine can provide assitance to ill people.
And for Richardson, his mission is to use the law to defend the constitutional rights of some of the most marginalized people in society.
Together, all of these activists are putting up a strong challenge against those who insist on fighting a drug war that has repeatedly been shown to fail.