MARIJUANA PARTY CAUSES A BUZZ
Crusaders Took 2 Per Cent Of The Vote In 75 Ridings Throughout Canada
With his hemp jacket, his car plastered with cannabis-leaf stickers and a CV that includes stints running the annual Montreal Smoke-in, it may have been easy to dismiss Marc-Boris St-Maurice as another fringe candidate in this week's federal election.
But Mr. St-Maurice is commanding more than a modicum of attention these days. In the wake of the nation's most apathy-inducing election run-up in memory, tens of thousands of Canadians loped off to the ballot box to vote for Mr. St-Maurice's party of marijuana missionaries.
Running on a shoestring budget and a stirring slogan to "end the persecution against cannabis," Mr. St-Maurice's marijuana party colected 66,500 votes nationwide, more ththan half of them in Quebec. In 21 Quebec ridings, the single issue party placed ahead of the NDP.
"To all the doubters and nay-sayers, they'll want to eat their words," Mr. St-Maurice said. "We take the political process quite seriously. And now we've got the mandate to fight for legalizing marijuana. The people who gave us their vote don't want us to let them down."
In the 73 ridings where it fielded candidates, the Marijuana Party poled about 2 per cent of votes. Mr. St-Maurice himself placed fourth in his constituency of Laurier Ste-Marie, a downtown Montreal district represented by Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.
Only the Liberal and the Green candidates did better. Mr. St-Maurice fared better than the local candidates for the mainstream Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats, and got twice as many votes as the Canadian Alliance-suggesting that some people put the right to use marijuana ahead of the right to a tax cut.
While part of the support was protest votes, some see evidence of growing acceptance for decriminalizing marijuana in Canada. Polls suggest that 8 in 10 canadians support marijuana use for therapeutic purposes, and one in two support recreational use.
Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, a Progressive conservative who has advocated reviewing Canada's drug laws, has met Mr. St-Maurice and sais he was not surprised by the party's showing on Monday.
"I was convinced they'd get noteworthy support in ridings where they ran a candidate," Mr. Nolin said in an interview. "There's been an evolution in public opinion. There's a lot more tolerance."
Mr. Nolin said he takes Mr. St-Maurice seriously, but the question of legalising marijuana is too complex to tackle during an election campaign.
"I support what they are doing, but the issue is a lot bigger than a political election," he said.
While popular local candidates helped the party fare respectably in a handfull of non-Quebec ridings, among them Calgary East and West-Vancouver-Sunshine-Coast-the party found it's most receptive audience in Quebec.
The province already granted Mr. St-Maurice a modest political base through his Bloc Pot, a provincial party that garnered 10,000 votes in 1998.
And analysts say Quebecker's tolerant bent makes them receptive to non-traditional movements.
It was Quebec that spawned the Rhinoceros Party in the 1960's, which at one time held the satus of Canada's fourth-largest political party.
"There's an openness here in Quebec to wacky things," said Claude Gauthier, vice-president of the polling firm CROP. "When it comes to certain values that are outside the mainstream, you can find fertile ground in Quebec."
"In some ridings, a party like [the Marijuana Party] says more to people than the NDP or the Cannadian Alliance."
The party's showing is also something of a personal vindication for 31-year-old Mr. St-Maurice, a rock musician who was busy filing election expenses yesterday at his cluttered apartment-turned-campaign headquarters in Montreal's arty Plateau Mont Royal district. In 1991, Mr. St-Maurice was jailed for 24 hours for possessing marijuana, and has vowed to reform Canada's drug laws ever since. "I was hearbroken about it," he recalled. "I promised I'd do something about it. And I wanted to do it with the dignity that the problem deserves."
In february, Mr. ST-Maurice returns to court to face possesion and trafficking charges stemming from a police raid of the Montreal compassion Club, a medical marijuana centre.