Following the lead of successful campaigns in several U.S. states, a new Canadian lobby group has a $7 million budget and a two-year plan to elect Members of Parliament hat support the legalization of marijuana in Canada.
Voters in Colorado and Washington State passed ballot initiatives that led to those states legalizing and regulating the recreational use of marijuana by adults, in the same way alcohol and tobacco are regulated by the government. Since a ballot initiative isn’t an option in Canada, Legalize Canada will need to adopt a different strategy: electing parliamentarians that support their goals.
“We have two goals,” said Quito Maggi, a veteran political organizer serving as campaign director for Legalize Canada. “Work in the next election to elect members of parliament who support legalization in all 338 ridings, and keep pressure on Parliament after the election to make good on their promises and implement cannabis law reform.”
Legalize Canada got its start two years ago when some friends in the cannabis legalization community asked Maggi how they could organize more professionally in support of legalizaton. Maggi developed a plan, and in the spring of 2013 representatives from the cannabis community as well as other interested parties, such as doctors, lawyers and police officers, gathered to discuss the issues around legalization. The plan was refined and the decision made to found Legalize Canada to work as an umbrella organization with all the legalization groups, such as The NORML Women's Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Drug Policy Alliance.
“Legalize Canada is pan-partisan,” said Maggi, a prominent Liberal organizer. Another Liberal organizer, Jay Telegdi, is onboard as campaign manager. “Although there are individuals part of it that are clearly partisan, we have people from all parties. And a bunch of people that aren’t a member of any party.”
Legalize Canada has a multi-phase, two year campaign it hopes will lead to the legalization of marijuana. Phase one is education, organizing activist groups and individual supporters in each riding six months before the next election and helping them educate members of their community why it’s good, sensible public policy to support legalization and take the marijuana trade out of the hands of organized crime.
“I have an 11 year old son. If he had $5 he could go down the street in any city or town in Canada and buy marijuana. Making it legal will make it harder for him to access. There’s a stringent process in place for alcohol and tobacco, and that’s what we’d like to see for marijuana,” said Maggi. “Also, a staggering amount of money is spent today on enforcement for simple possession charges, and it’s clogging up the courts. It we regulate it to make it safer and tax it so it generates revenue for the government instead of costing it, it’s a win/win for society all around.”
The next phase is mobilizing for the writ period. While Legalize Canada will be pushing hard in all 338 ridings, its polling has identified 95-100 ridings where the difference between support for legalization and the differential in the last election would mean electing a different MP in that riding. Those will be their target ridings and the focus of their effort, which will include a traditional advertising campaign, as well as a digital strategy and ground game to make sure its identified pro-legalization voters get to the polls to support the candidate Legalize Canada has identified as the pro-legalization candidate with the best opportunity to win the seat.
Legalize Canada plans to file as a third-party group with Elections Canada and comply with all campaign finance regulations. The group has a $7 million budget for its two-year campaign. It has seed funding in place, but will be looking to raise the final 80 per cent in the coming year.
Finally, the last stage comes post-election, educating and mobilizing parliaments to craft good, sensible legislation around cannabis legalization.
The group will be looking to apply lessons learned from successful legalization battles in the U.S. Maggi and several Legalize Canada organizers attended the 2013 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last October, and did a presentation on their plans for Canada.
“We met with a lot of the U.S. strategists that helped bring in legalization in some states, and we’ve gotten a lot of good advice and praise for our approach,” said Maggi. “It’s a very different approach than in the U.S. Getting a referendum on this nationally would be a monumental effort.”
Legalize Canada’s first high-profile public event in Canada will be a hospitality suite on Saturday at the Liberal Party of Canada’s biennial convention in Montreal, and Maggi said they will be attending political conventions of all parties going forward to begin conversations about the need for change in Canada’s cannabis legislation.
While there have been activist efforts and lots of stunts done in the past, Legalize Canada marks the first time, said Maggi, that there will be a campaign in Canada run by media and political professionals Canada working for the legalization of marijuana.
“We need everyone who supports this for one reason or another, whether it’s public safety or economics, to join this campaign,” said Maggi.
He also emphasizes that, while some members of the organizing team may have used marijuana in the past, they have all committed to not being consumers while they lead this effort towards legalization.
“We want to avoid any potential controversy,” said Maggi. “Our rule has been for the people working on the central team that no one is a consumer.”
In three days, the group's Facebook page is already approaching 5,000 likes.
“It’s been a tremendous show of support from right across Canada, and we hope to just keep growing,” said Maggi.
The Liberal Party is on the record as supporting marijuana legalization, while the NDP has stated its support for decriminalization. The governing Conservative Party currently opposes any liberalization of Canada’s cannabis legislation.