07/18/23 Dana Larsen

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen

Dana Larsen is one of Canada’s most well-known advocates for cannabis reform and in calling for an end to the global war on drugs.

Larsen is a Vancouver activist, author and businessman. He served ten years as editor of Cannabis Culture Magazine, was the co-founder of the Vancouver Seed Bank, and is the former Vice President of the Canadian Association of Cannabis Dispensaries. He currently serves as founding director of the Vancouver Dispensary Society and is also founder and director of Sensible BC, Canada’s largest grassroots cannabis reform organization.

Audio file

08/02/18 Dana Larsen

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Dana Larsen

Dana Larsen of British Colombia Canada is an author and activist who wants to legalize all drugs + Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno Exec Dir of Drug Policy Alliance

Audio file


AUGUST 2, 2018


DEAN BECKER: During this time of eternal war, I find it my somber duty to report the death toll from the drug formerly known as marijuana is zero.

Hello, folks. This is the High Reverend Dean Becker, and this is Cultural Baggage. We've got a great show, most of it coming to you from Canada. But first, I want to get something out of the way.

It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Difficulty breathing, swelling of your face, fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, severe blistering, bruising, tingling, numbness, pain, weakness, bleeding, dark urine, clay colored stools, jaundice, and death. Time's up! The answer: Nuvigil, a medication that promotes wakefulness.

And let us begin.

You know, it's been a few years since I talked to our next guest, but he's been busy the whole time, I can guarantee you that. He works up in Canada, I think he's based in British Columbia, but he's been one of British Columbia's most outspoken advocates for marijuana reform, and I applaud him. I'm glad to hear that he's also been talking about decriminalizing the personal possession of hard drugs including cocaine and heroin. With that, I want to welcome Mister Dana Larsen. Hello, Dana.

DANA LARSEN: Hey, hello, thanks for having me.

DEAN BECKER: Dana, you know, you heard what I said, I'm a LEAP speaker. I think we have bigger fish to fry than just cannabis these days. Would you agree with that thought, sir?

DANA LARSEN: Well, the opioid overdose crisis is pretty extreme, especially here in Vancouver, BC, where we've had about four deaths a day now from opioid overdoses, and I'd call it -- I'd say it's not a drug crisis, it's a prohibition crisis, and these overdoses and deaths are caused almost entirely by the war on drugs.

DEAN BECKER: Exactly right. I don't know how often you might hear my show, but I close the Cultural Baggage show with the thought that because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag and I urge folks to please be careful, and that is the point. Nobody knows what they're buying these days. Supposed heroin is being replaced by fentanyl and carfentanyl, in the main. Your thought, please.

DANA LARSEN: Well, you know, if you look back historically, the exact same thing was happening during alcohol prohibition, where, in Canada and the US, many thousands of people were blinded or killed by drinking alcohol that was poorly made or wood grain alcohol, and if alcohol prohibition had lasted until now, we would see the same thing, where the number of deaths goes up every decade.

Every decade since we banned opioids in Canada, we've seen more overdose deaths than the decade before, and actually back in the 1990s, when there was one overdose death a day in British Columbia, that was considered a crisis, and we had a big -- hearings, and discussions, and the government talked about changing things, and eventually they didn't do anything and they just decided one death a day was the new normal.

Now that it's up to four deaths a day, everyone's freaking out again. I really hope they don't decide in a year or two that, oh, four deaths a day isn't so bad actually, and just wait till it gets to ten deaths a day before they get concerned again.

We need to realize that the prohibition is the root cause here, and ending prohibition is the solution to the drug overdose crisis.

DEAN BECKER: You know, in recent weeks, here in my city, Houston, we had a couple of instances where cops thought they encountered fentanyl or carfentanyl, gave themselves naloxone treatment to prevent, I guess, ODing or dying, but the fact of the matter is that stuff is deadly, but it's not as deadly as is often indicated, that you can't absorb it through your skin and immediately, you know, fall over dead, it's another means to just frighten us into believing, I don't know, this drug war is worthwhile. Your thought there, Dana.

DANA LARSEN: Well, yeah, I mean, fentanyl and carfentanyl are certainly dangerous, but they don't absorb into your skin if you touch them like that, that's really a myth and I think that the police are spreading paranoia and misinformation about this, which doesn't really help the situation at all.

And, you know, people, they want clean, safe opiates, and we need to provide a clean, safe source of drugs. And people say to me, I don't want to pay for any addicts drugs, that's not fair. Well, then charge them, because it's very, very cheap, producing these drugs is incredibly cheap. You can get, you know, heroin tablets or other forms of opiates for like a dollar a dose.

The only reason it's so expensive for street drugs is because of prohibition, and, you know, in Switzerland they have programs where they allow opiate users to buy opiates, at cost, it doesn't cost taxpayers anything, but there's no profit being made either. And it works very, very well.

And in Portugal, where they've decriminalized possession of all drugs and are treating drug use like a health issue, they've also seen remarkable success, and many American states have also decriminalized possession as well. You know, Oregon, I believe, has a thing in place where there's a limited amount of any drug you can possess, and you won't be charged. And I think we have to stop looking at drug use as a crime, or as a moral failing, and just look on it as a health issue, and people need help, we should be helping them.

But, the main thing these people need is clean, safe drugs, in knowable doses, in safe amounts, and to not allow that to happen, really, it's tantamount to murder, in my opinion.

DEAN BECKER: I'm with you there, sir. I was privileged, earlier this spring, I went to Switzerland there, I got a chance to interview Doctor Christoph Buerki. He was the designer of the Swiss heroin injection program. I had a chance to tour their facility, learned how, you know, people come in twice a day, they do their heroin there, and that, in the approximate twenty years, I don't remember exactly, of this program, no one has died.

It's -- it's -- the fear of these drugs is more deadly than the drugs, am I right?

DANA LARSEN: Well, we've had a hundred years, or more than a hundred years, of demonization, of paranoia, of fear and attacks against primarily opiates, but also cannabis and cocaine and many other substances as well.

And, you know, these substances, in their original, natural forms, they're not deadly. People who smoke opium or drink opium tea, they don't overdose and die. And before we banned opiates, that was how opiate users used it, they primarily smoked opium. And I think we need to go beyond a supervised injection site, and offer opiate users a safer alternative. Sure, if you need to inject, okeh, there's a safe place you can do it, here's some safe drugs.

But, maybe you'd prefer a cup of opium tea? Maybe you'd prefer to smoke some opium, and I think a large number of current opiate injectors would switch to milder, safer forms if they had the alternative.

And we saw this again with alcohol prohibition, where during alcohol prohibition, smugglers don't want to smuggle beer and wine, they smuggled a hundred percent pure alcohol, the strongest stuff they can get, and then they dilute it down on the other end, after it's been smuggled. And that also caused countless health problems, deaths, overdoses from alcohol.

And when you ban a drug, you make it stronger. Not because users necessarily want stronger drugs, because that's what's easier to smuggle, and more profitable, and prohibition makes drugs stronger. And legalization makes drugs weaker, and safer, and people really want more moderate doses for their use.

And so, you know, people say we've got a drug problem or an overdose problem, and I always say, it's a prohibition problem. Prohibition is what is causing this to happen. And you know, in my opinion, the war on drugs is really a genocide against poor people, marginalized people, indigenous people, and we need to recognize that, and that politicians who support prohibition are ultimately supporting death, misery, and genocide, in North America and around the world.

DEAN BECKER: Wow. You nailed it, Dana, that's exactly my feelings. This is -- this is a deviation from reality, it's, I call it a quasi-religion, this belief in prohibition. Doesn't need any data, just the belief.

You know, you guys have, in British Columbia in particular, had safe injection sites, Insite there, where folks can come in and use their drugs under medical supervision, and I think in, I don't know, over a decade that it's been in play there hasn't been one death that has occurred there, though there have been those who overdosed, and were able to recover thanks to the medical personnel on staff.

And we have down here in the US now, San Francisco, Seattle, Ithaca, New York, New York City, a couple of other cities I'm leaving out, are considering making use of safe injection facilities for their cities. What would you say to those politicians considering making that move?

DANA LARSEN: Well, I support supervised injection sites very, very much. They reduce disease, they reduce overdose, they also can act as a facility for people who do want help or to want to stop using opiates, that they can get information and contacts and work to end their opiate use there. So I think they're a good start.

But, also, in the long run, I feel that it -- supervised injection sites aren't really the final solution to anything, you know? They definitely save lives and prevent people from overdosing, but in my opinion it's a little bit odd to say well, we're going to give you a clean needle and -- to put your dirty street drugs in, and then if you overdose we're going to be here to stop your overdose and to give you some Narcan to -- or naloxone to reverse your overdose.

But, really we should be giving them some clean drugs to put in their needle as well. So, I think that, and we should also offer them alternatives that are non-injectable and perhaps safer. So I definitely think that supervised injection sites are a good first step, and that they save lives, and that people who oppose them ultimately believe that drug users should die as punishment for being a drug user.

But I think we've got to go beyond supervised injection sites, ultimately. They're a first step of many steps towards really ending prohibition altogether.

DEAN BECKER: Well -- well said. Dana, I think about, you know, you guys have had a medical marijuana law in place for many years now, and it has worked out pretty good, as best I understand it, but you're legalizing October Twelfth or something, I believe, there's a new set of laws going to be in play. But from my perspective down here in Texas, it really seems kind of creepy, the way it's all set up. Your response to that thought, please.

DANA LARSEN: Yeah, the legalization is going to come into play in Canada on October Seventeenth, although it's going to be ultimately a multi-year, maybe a multi-decade process of really sort of ending the stigma and attacks on cannabis users.

The laws they've put in place, I mean, I support what we're doing in Canada because I think it is a step forward, but the way they're treating cannabis, the -- we want to see an end to prohibition that includes an apology from the government, a recognition that prohibition was wrong, and based in racism and bigotry and ignorance and was never well-intentioned and never accomplished anything good.

But the route they're going is to say, well, we're going to punish cannabis, if you violate any of these rules we're going to punish you far out of proportion to what it would be with alcohol. And they've put in rules that are far more restrictive than alcohol, in every way, and far more punitive, even though cannabis is the much safer choice than alcohol.

So there's all kinds of things in this legislation that really need to be looked at in Canada, and ultimately will need to be changed over the next ten or twenty years, as we continue moving forward on this.

There's lots of examples, you know, for instance in Canada, an adult parent can share alcohol with their minor child if they choose to do so at home. So you want to give your kid a half glass of wine with dinner or something, that's not a crime. But an adult parent who shares cannabis with their teenage child can face very severe penalties and jail time.

And, it's like that all the way down the line, where every aspect of these cannabis laws are still maintaining the idea that cannabis is incredibly dangerous, and that cannabis users can't be trusted, and that it's better if we all just drink alcohol instead of using cannabis, and so it's created a system I think that is still unduly restricted, unduly controlled, and there's still going to be even arrests for cannabis possession in Canada after it's legalized.

If you possess cannabis, which they call illicit cannabis, so you didn't buy it at the right place or grow it yourself, that's a crime, and you can go to jail for that, with quite severe penalties. And we just don't treat alcohol or tobacco or anything else that's legal like that, so, there's still a lot of work to do, but, you know, in a planet where prohibition is the dominant policy in pretty much every country on earth, I think Canada is still making some significant steps forward, even though it's not really giving us everything that we want when it comes to ending cannabis prohibition.

DEAN BECKER: Look, I have to agree with you, Dana, but -- progress is progress, and embrace it and move forward, but, it just seems that there was a reach back to reefer madness, to just hang onto it, to carry it forward into this new era, and that's what's kind of creepy to me, is that it's obvious. Cannabis is not the threat it was once purported to be, and why the heck are we so afraid.

DANA LARSEN: Yeah, I feel that the decisions being made by Canada's liberal government about -- and the rhetoric around legalization is really designed not to do the right thing, but to thwart attacks from the right. So they're framing legalization as a way of fighting, you know, the bad guys who are the organized crime and the gangsters who are selling cannabis now.

They're framing legalization as a way of protecting young people from the harms of cannabis, rather than framing it as cannabis is pretty good, actually, and prohibition is wrong, and we never should have banned it in the first place. And so because they're taking that angle and that approach, it really kinks the way that legalization is going to look in Canada.

And, we have a very strange situation in Canada, much like the situation in Amsterdam right now, where cannabis is illegal federally, but many cities have got cannabis shops in them operating quite openly, in Vancouver, in Victoria, and other cities that these dispensaries have been granted business licenses and mainstream acceptance, even though they're still against federal law.

And the legalization we're getting is actually being accompanied by threats to crack down on the dispensaries, and to shut down and punish even more severely the current industry.

I was in Amsterdam a few months ago, and the Dutch coffee shop owners were like, hey, congratulations, they're going to legalize in Canada, and I told them, well, yeah, thanks for the good sentiment, but it's like if the Dutch government said we're going to open three government run cannabis shops in Amsterdam and then we're going to raid and shut down every single coffee shop that's here and throw all you guys in jail. And they were like, oh, that's not a good idea. And I'm like yeah, it's not.

It's not really like a system that's open for those who are already in the industry, and who have been the pioneers moving things forward, and challenging the law. They're still seeing those people, like myself, as criminals who deserve to be punished and flushed out of the way so that we can be replaced by a limited selection of corporatized government cannabis, and I think that's just not the way to go.

There needs to be a liberation of the industry, and not trying to replace and demonize the current cannabis industry, and replace it with this government monopoly, that's not really going to work in Canada. I think it's going to lead to many more years of conflict, arrests, confusion, and stigmatization of cannabis users.

DEAN BECKER: Well, you know, earlier you spoke of the fact that these harder drugs really cost just pennies to make, that the -- it is the prohibition that inflates that price to where it is today on the street. And the same can pretty much be true for cannabis. I realize there's rent for the warehouses where this stuff is grown, but, you know, you can grow some pretty good stuff outdoors that basically costs nothing but time and a little sunshine.

And I guess what I'm leading to here, Dana, is, we have a situation where cannabis has been way over priced for decades, and the price is not going down that much through your new government policy. The black market's still going to be out there, it's still going to be kind of thwarting the efforts of the government. Am I right?

DANA LARSEN: Oh, absolutely, and you know, I always say, if they want to shut down every dispensary in Canada and get rid of the black market, it's easy to do. Just have legal cannabis be higher quality, better selection, and lower prices than what's out there now.

And if they do that, well then my dispensary can't compete, and we would have to shut down, which I would consider kind of a victory. But they want to tax it a dollar a gram, regardless of how much that gram costs, it's going to be a dollar tax on it, plus seven percent GST federally, plus provincial taxes, plus probably a provincial fee as well. So we're looking at, you know, around a two dollar a gram tax on this plant.

They're not going to be able to compete with the current industry if they don't lower those taxes and produce more quality. And another thing maybe people don't realize is that the legalization we're getting in Canada only is for dried buds. No extracts, no edibles, no hash, no concentrates, no cookies, no brownies, no suppositories, no capsules, none of those things are going to be legal in Canada.

Only raw, dried buds for smoking will be available in these government run shops when we legalize. And they say they're going to bring in the extracts and the edibles in a year or so, I expect that will be more like two or three years before they really get that figured out and in place.

But -- but ultimately, I mean, I'm all for smoking dried buds, but especially for medical users, the real value medicinally comes from the extracts and the edibles and things like that, that have a higher concentration and more ability to help with medical issues.

And so, you know, as a Canadian citizen, I say, well, get on this right away and legalize it all, and as someone who runs a dispensary I say, hey, take your time. We've got this covered, and the longer they take to get their stuff in place, the longer we can continue serving our members and providing those products to those who need them.


DANA LARSEN: So, it's going to be a long, slow process in Canada until we get to where we need to be.

DEAN BECKER: Maybe I had heard those details, that they weren't allowing for extracts and edibles, but that just -- that just seems ridiculous. Some folks can't smoke anything, their lungs will not handle it. It's -- it just seems outrageous to me.

Again, folks, we're speaking with Mister Dana Larsen, he's a drug policy activist up there in Canada, based in British Columbia. Dana, as we're wrapping it up here, I want to come back to, you mentioned they're trying to deny you and good folks like Jody and Marc Emery the right to open a dispensary, to be providers, that many of those that are taking over the distribution of these drugs are former cops and district attorneys, and others who used to prosecute folks who sold cannabis.

And that to me is part of what, you know, was creepy to me about what's going on up there. Would you address that for us, please?

DANA LARSEN: Oh, absolutely. That's an issue, and you know what? It's one thing if a police officer, you know, I'm glad to see cops, you know, growing cannabis or moving into the cannabis industry in some ways, but not when they're going to continue to demonize cannabis users.

You know, now they're saying, well, don't buy it from those gangsters who've been selling it all along, buy it from me, I'm a cop, you can trust me, or I'm a big former politician, you can trust me, buy it from me, and these people often were angry and pushy opponents against legalization. They demonized cannabis, they attacked Trudeau for wanting to legalize, and then now as soon as it's legal and they see the money, they suddenly see dollar signs in their eyes and they decide they want to be the ones to sell it to everybody.

And, I just think that that's wrong, you know, it -- people in the cannabis industry should not be the same people that have been fighting to destroy the cannabis industry, who continue to demonize cannabis users and cannabis growers and the cannabis culture.

I don't want to buy my cannabis from those people. And I think that most cannabis users don't want to buy it from them either. And so, we've really got a system in Canada that is difficult for the average person to get involved in, and participate in.

And I will say it's sort of heading in the right direction in some ways, but that they're opening that up a little bit, they're creating what they're calling microgrow licenses and things like that, for smaller growers, but, it's such a slow, slow process, and so restricted, and ultimately you really need millions of dollars to sort of get involved in the legal industry. And I think that kind of restriction is going the wrong way.

I like what I'm seeing in some cities like Oakland and a few American states where they're actually making an effort to set aside licenses or include people that have personally been affected by cannabis prohibition, or from communities that have been marginalized and hurt by cannabis prohibition, and trying to prioritize them to get the licenses and to be part of the legal industry.

And I think we need to have that kind of approach in Canada, but that's not what we're getting. We're getting the opposite, where it's the elite, the people who are already millionaires, who want to become billionaires on the cannabis industry, and I think that's just the wrong way.

And ultimately, legalization should mean that cannabis is a lot cheaper, and more available, and higher quality than it is now. And if that's not happening, then it's not really legalization, it's more just kind of a sideways move on prohibition in some ways.

So, yeah, we have a lot of problems with our legalization, but, at the same time, I'm glad that we're moving in this direction and we're having these discussions, and you know, hopefully it's not another ten or twenty years before we create a system that's really dot the end of cannabis prohibition as we want to see it happening in Canada.

DEAN BECKER: Well, I thank you for that, Dana. I have one more question here. I came to Canada, I don't know, I'm guessing ten years ago, I was up there to visit Marc and Jody and to tour the Insite facility. And as I came across the border, they found where I had been busted thirty five years ago, now it's probably 45 years ago, I was just a kid.

And they almost didn't let me in the country. It was for robbing a drug store. I didn't rob it, but I pled guilty and I took the five years probation rather than twenty behind bars. We're going to have a situation at the border where folks in Canada will not be able to come to America because they're pot smokers, much the same as pot smokers can now, are being denied coming into Canada for the same reason. Your thought in that regard.

DANA LARSEN: Well, I -- we do restrict people coming into Canada, but I think America's more strict in how they deal with people coming across the border the other direction.

And we're actually starting to see this happen in Canada now. It used to be just sort of regular people or poor people with criminal records that were getting stopped, and wealthier people could find a way around it, but we've recently seen a few prominent Canadians who are big money investors in the cannabis industry getting turned back at the border.

And in a way, I think that's kind of good, because it needs to affect the rich and powerful people before they'll do anything about it. And I'm seeing these folks saying, I can't believe it, I'm shocked that I was turned back at the border because I happen to own a cannabis company.

And of course, that's not just, but I hope that these people in these positions of power will then try to pressure the US government to change those laws, because we're going to have thousands and thousands of Canadians who, whether or not they use cannabis, they're going to be working in a legal government regulated cannabis shop, and if they get -- if the US customs, you know, finds out where they work, they're going to get banned from entering into the US, and this is going to affect a lot of Canadians.

And so I hope that we could put pressure on the American government. I don't know how responsive Trump is going to be to wanting to make those changes, but hopefully, if you guys still have a democracy and a president in a few years, that your next president might actually work to change some of these things, because it's going to cause a lot of problems for a lot of people, and it's going to impact trade across the border quite severely as well.

And in British Columbia especially, we look to the north, and there's legal cannabis in Alaska, and we look to the south, and there's legal cannabis in Washington and Oregon, and yet if you -- and there's going to be legal cannabis in British Columbia, but if you're a legal cannabis user crossing from British Columbia into Washington or Alaska, you're going to get turned back because the federal government still hates cannabis as official policy.

So, it's going to be a strange situation, and it's certainly the punishment, the stigmatization, and the harassment and the arrests of cannabis users and cannabis growers, and those in the cannabis industry. It's going to continue for a long time to come.

And what's happening here in Canada's really is just the first small step in a long journey towards really ending cannabis prohibition and recognizing that cannabis was never the problem, that cannabis is the solution, and prohibition is the problem.

DEAN BECKER: Right on the money, sir. Thank you for that. Friends, we've been speaking with Mister Dana Larsen, he's an activist extraordinaire up there in British Columbia. And, a closing thought to share with you, Dana. The lady at the border, I said, do you see any problems other than that 35 years ago charge, and she said no, I don't. And then she said, I tell you what, Mister Becker, we'll let you in this time. And she let me in the country, in a very, in my opinion, very Canadian perspective. Closing thoughts from you, Dana.

DANA LARSEN: Ah, well, just that I think we have to keep up this effort and we have to keep pushing to really end the stigma around cannabis, and for me, like we've been saying, it's much more than just cannabis, it's the whole war on drugs, and you know I've been thinking maybe it's time to open a medicinal mushroom dispensary in Vancouver, and start providing psilocybin mushrooms and other beneficial entheogens and psychedelics in a medical fashion to those who need it.

There's a lot of research and experience showing that these kind of entheogenic substances can really help people deal with addictive behaviors, and help them sometimes stop using opiates. And that's one of the many hypocrisies of the war on drugs, that some of the drugs that can help you get off opiates are also banned under prohibition, even though these things are incredibly useful, psychologically beneficial.

So, for me, I want to continue pushing to end the whole war on drugs, the war really on many of the world's most beneficial and useful and culturally relevant plants. And so, in many ways, this journey towards ending prohibition is really just beginning, and we still have a very long, long way to go.

DEAN BECKER: We close this out with a quick injection of thought in support of Mister Dana Larsen. Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno.

MARIA MCFARLAND SANCHEZ-MORENO: The US has used the war on drugs and criminalization as its main approach to problematic drug use, or all drug use, for decades, and it got us here, where, at this time when tens of thousands of people are dying of overdose every year. It's time for the US to look, take a hard look, at these failed policies, and explore new alternatives that have been proven to work elsewhere.

DEAN BECKER: Maria is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance,

This is Dean Becker, urging you to visit our website and check out our seven thousand radio segments, that's all available at

And again, I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please, be careful.