Cannabis Dispensaries and the Meaning of Civil Disobedience

If you look at the cover of the May 2016 issue of MacLean’s, you will see a pastiche of cannabis dispensary photos overlapped by a bright yellow circle

In the circle are the phrases: A DRUG DEALER ON EVERY CORNER; ridiculously easy to buy; completely out of control; with the addition of the words, ‘Justin Trudeau,’ and ‘legalize pot.’ If you read further you encounter more of the same. From a researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, for example, you hear that we are in “a lawless state where everyone does what they want.” The MacLean’s piece, written by Michael Friscolanti, is not wholly negative. Veteran cannabis activist lawyer, Kirk Tousaw is quoted on the importance of dispensaries, and prominent activist Dana Larsen, on the subject of civil disobedience. Tousaw represents 35 BC medical cannabis dispensaries; Larsen has just completed his OverGrow Canada Tour during which he distributed, free of charge, over a million cannabis seeds to be planted this summer across the country. BC dispensaries, confirms Friscolanti, are following the lead of early advocates of medical marijuana, who “blazed the initial trail.”

Macleans- Pot shops coverElsewhere in the media we hear the Vancouver dispensary scene referred to as “the Wild West.” News reporters ask aloud how, amidst such defiance of law, citizens are to judge what laws to break. By the standards of reefer madness, such media reporting is balanced. But it isn’t good. The headlines and the choice of analogies remain alarmist and feverish. An exploration of civil disobedience, its nature and its purposes, is one way to cool the fever. And if it can’t cool the fever, it can at least clarify in our minds which of the feverish claims are unfounded, and why.

The phrase ‘civil disobedience’ is traceable to the work of 19th century American anarchist/libertarian, Henry David Thoreau, who famously refused to pay a poll tax to support the Mexican-American war. In Civil Disobedience, published in 1849, Thoreau expressed the idea that it is a civic duty to follow the dictates of conscience; that governments and law enforcement are dangerous; and that they must be designed carefully to do as little harm as possible. Gandhi, the 20th century’s best known civil disobedient, was a self-acclaimed student of Thoreau’s writings. So was Martin Luther King. The movements for peace, civil rights, women’s rights, native rights, animal rights, and environmental protection have all made use of civil disobedience. Occupy Wall Street was an exercise in civil disobedience. So are tent cities. And so are storefront medical cannabis dispensaries, some of the growers that supply them, vapour lounges, bakeries, and cannabis testing laboratories.

Civil disobedience is not chaos. Neither is it rule breaking, or general law breaking. Rather, it is an orderly set of actions common to democratic, or would-be democratic states. Here are some of its important features.

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