Down in Smoke

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From “Head Shops” gleefully flying their green, yellow and red Rasta colors on banners and signs above their front doors, selling bongs, pipes and vaporizers, among other such weed-inspired paraphernalia, to Canada’s consistently-largest annual 4/20 celebration festival whose attendance numbers count in the thirties of thousands, Vancouver has long been associated with the sickly-sweet smelling, skin-sticking, smokable substance otherwise commonly known as marijuana.

vcwServing as the host city of the Marijuana Party of Canada as well as the home base of Marc Emery, also known as the “Prince of Pot,” who happens to be one of Canada’s most famous cannabis legalization activists, Vancouver has long presented a friendlier and more welcoming attitude to stoners and stoner culture, boasting one of the lowest marijuana-possession ticketing rates in the country.

In other words, it was the perfect place to take up the mantle as the first Canadian city to regulate the quickly-burgeoning marijuana dispensary industry. Kick-started into overdrive by Health Canada’s October, 2013, decision to stop allowing patients to grow their own stashes at home, dispensaries have grown from under a dozen to over 100 in the short span of two years. As a result, complaints started to pile up from communities angry at the crowds, the smell, the proximity of shops to schools and the overall seemingly Wild-West nature of an industry that was getting too large and starting to spin out of control. More and more people started to think that something needed to be done, and so something was.

On June 24, 2015, Vancouver City Council voted 8-3 to introduce Canada’s first medical marijuana dispensary regulations. This move was applauded by various marijuana-industry leaders, including Marc Emery and Dana Larson, the founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party, as well as Mayor Gregor Robertson, who commented that these regulations would allow the city to properly manage dispensary numbers.

“This is a common sense approach to a complicated issue, which has been made worse by the lack of action from the Federal government.” Robertson said in a press briefing announcing the new rules.

Along with a $30,000 annual administration fee, the highest amount possible under law, and an up-to a $5,000 a year business license, dispensaries will likewise have to maintain a proximity restriction of 300 metres from any learning institution or community college, as well as from other dispensaries. All of this is expected to shutter about 85-90% of all dispensaries, leaving only around 15-20 in the city.

Maple Ridge needs better road lane illumination

Last Wednesday, two people were struck by cars in Maple Ridge, within four hours of each other. Luckily for them, neither injury was serious and/or life-threatening. However, this does illustrate a problem, not just in our city, but frankly all throughout the mainland: road illumination, especially in bad weather, is hideous.

I’m sure anyone with a car will agree that driving down our roads and highways at night is an arduous task in clean weather, never mind when it’s raining down a storm and the only thing evident from your point of view behind the windshield is a mirror reflection of street lamps and headlights. Cars can be seen drifting in and out of each others’ way, seemingly following a vague approximation of where their lane is. It doesn’t make for a happy, pleasant drive and, furthermore, endangers the lives of any pedestrian unfortunate enough to be crossing the road at that time.

I grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, which is a very dry, humid place, and so is not prone to constant rain and poor visibility, but even so the roads there are positively covered with neon markers along the lane lines, every few metres or so, that illuminate the lanes akin to what can be seen from an airplane window during a night landing. Understandably, this does not do very much for the pedestrians, but if the road is well-lit, the driver can focus on what’s happening around the car, and not just focus all available attention on making sure the car doesn’t drive onto the sidewalk.

Street lamps, while offering visibility on what’s happening along the sidewalks, do nothing for the road, unfortunately. What happens is the asphalt gets illuminated, true enough, but the white paint indicating lanes stays invisible beyond the half-metre threshold from the car.

Canada is a very sophisticated, advanced country, and it’s rather surprising that something so easily-fixed would stay ignored for so long – at least in B.C., I’m not sure about the state of road illumination in other provinces.

War on drugs continues despite public support for legalization

Last Thursday, yet another grow-op was busted by police, this one in Maple Ridge. The operation was strictly husband-wife and the amount of plants confiscated neared 10,000. To be clear: that’s around $3 million – or, at least, that’s what 11,000 plants in 2009 fetched, so that figure might very well be a lot higher today.

The market for marijuana in B.C. alone is estimated to be worth about $7 billion annually. That’s greater than the logging and coal industries (the biggest in the province,) combinedThe fact that alcohol and tobacco are legal, and cause roughly 2.5 million and 500,000 deaths, respectively, while weed, which causes zero, is illegal, doesn’t make sense on any level.

Thankfully, public opinion has shifted dramatically within the last couple of decades, especially in Canada, where the vast majority support either decriminalization or flat-out legalization of the substance. At the end of last month, mayors from across B.C. attended the Union of B.C. municipalities, where they voted to officially ask Ottawa to revise its position on marijuana. Of course, this decision is largely symbolic – there’s almost no chance the conservatives will even give this matter a second thought – but it does reflect a growing trend in recent years. Earlier in the year, four former B.C. attorneys general penned a letter to Christy Clark asking for the decriminalization of pot, saying that keeping it illegal fuels gang violence in the province, which has been steadily increasing, and wastes a potential gold mine in terms of tax collection.

Keeping our neighborhoods safe for children to walk and play in should be the utmost priority of all citizens. The war on drugs has proven to be a failure, it’s time to listen to the people and take steps to modernize the law in order to reflect people’s demands.

Of course it has to be regulated, just like cigarettes and alcohol – 19+ age restriction, no shops near schools or churches, and definitely no driving or working while under the influence. But missing out on that potential tax revenue, and giving fuel to the various gangs that perpetually vie for turf control via shootouts in public is simply unacceptable, especially in today’s tough economic times. The provincial government keeps telling us that it needs to implement cuts, such as the those applied to the teachers, because of budgetary deficits. Well, this seems like the perfect time to tap into the biggest source of revenue in our province.

I didn’t know her… but my sister did.

Bullying is nothing new. Cowards have always tried to hide behind their own insecurities and fears by deflecting and projecting what they feel onto others. I was very lucky when going through school – especially high school, which is quite often the worst time in one’s life – because I just honestly didn’t care about social circles and/or trends (still don’t,) and due to that I’ve always been fortunate enough to have good, real friends, quite often much larger than I, therefore I was nearly always untouchable-by-proxy. The few times when I did get picked on, I’d roll with it and throw a punch or two. Yes, I’d take a fist, or knee, to the solar plexus and double over like Stephan Bonnar and Anderson Silva every now and then, but, for the most part, that would be the last time that particular bully, or group thereof, tried to mess with me. Not because I was, or am, a great fighter, but simple because it’s easier and more preferable to pick on someone who offers no offense at all.

Of course, everyone by now has read about the terrible tragedy that occurred about a week ago – a 15-year-old girl by the name of Amanda Todd had tragically taken her own life as a means of escaping the bullying that had robbed her of her youthful innocence and dragged her very soul into a black pit of despair and hopelessness, a pit that will soon be filled by the majority of her tormentors once they grow up a little and fully comprehend the entirety and finality of what their actions had wrought. I read about it last Thursday on various news sites and was struck by how horrific the situation was, especially once the details of her life started trickling online. I read she once lived and went to school in Maple Ridge, and my immediate reaction was to think of my own 15-year-old sister, and how I would react if I found out she was being bullied like that.

When I got home that evening, my sister was already in her room, with the door locked, so I assumed she was sleeping. I slightly overslept the next morning, so when I woke up, she was already in school. This was the day when the details of the bullying started coming out, and I remember my class-mates and I had discussions over the seriousness of bullying, and the need for strict, anti-bullying legislature to be introduced, all throughout that day.

I got home that evening, a little earlier than the previous day, so my sister’s door was open. I went inside to ask her about her day, and was very surprised, shocked and worried to see her sitting alone on her bed in the dark, no laptop (which on most days seems to be surgically attached to her hip) in sight – tears silently running down her cheeks. What little light there was, was stemming and cutting through the window and shades from the other side of the room, bouncing off her face, making her tears sparkle like diamonds.

Before I had the chance to say anything, she looked at me and whispered:

“Why did they have to keep bullying her like that? She made one mistake, and she apologized for it. Why couldn’t they just leave it alone?”

It turns out that Amanda Todd was a good friend of my sister’s, and she was supposed to come visit us that very weekend for the first time.

It’s one thing to read about tragedies such as this online, and see the ramifications of it on TV, but it’s not anywhere near the same as experiencing something like that personally, even if it is by proxy, through the look of pain and grief of a beloved family member. People are intrinsically selfish, to a degree. Even the best of us. When something terrible happens to someone you don’t know, no matter how hard you can try to emphasize with those affected, there is always a little voice in the back of your mind being thankful that it didn’t happen to someone you love.

But sitting with my sister that evening, listening to her talk about Amanda’s life, feeling the despair emanating off of her in waves, it brought a whole new dimension to the issue. It is so very unfortunate that it feels like people become more savage and cruel in direct proportion to how good the standard of living is. Those who have never been bullied, who have never been in want for anything, who have had a good life, cannot possibly understand empathy and compassion while in teenage years. It has to be taught, hammered in: life is precious.

Social media, I believe, plays a large part in this, as well. Being behind a monitor, and a moniker, erases all humanity and decency. The comments left online on websites such as YouTube are testament to what happens when the “human” element gets taken out of human interaction, leaving just a username and text, maybe an avatar with a picture of something other than the user’s actual face. The Internet hasn’t been around long enough for the appropriate studies to be done regarding the correlation between a possible lack of empathy and time spent in a digital, unfeeling world. I fear that this upcoming generation may be affected by an unforeseen consequence of technological evolution.

Obviously, it is impossible to imagine the pain Amanda’s family must be feeling, the overwhelming grief that must be suffocating them – I can only offer my deepest, sincerest condolences, and let it be known that she wasn’t alone, she did have friends, but when times are that dark, it is often impossible to see any light at all, seemingly the only constant in life is darkness, and the only feeling: pain.

Something has to be done

How many tragedies do we, as a Canadian society, have to endure before we take measures to mitigate this growing wave of teenage indifference to the pain of others? Several MPs have very recently introduced a motion to the federal government, one aimed at creating a non-partisan committee to develop an anti-bullying strategy. Whether anything will come from this is unknown, but regardless, this issue isn’t new, and it should not have taken such a tragedy to spur politicians into action.

I say, why not make those teens accountable for their actions? Bullying has to be equated with assault, and those that bully have to be tried in court, with a possible sentence in juvenile detention if the situation is serious enough to warrant it.

I am so very, very sorry that it took the death of an innocent, beautiful young girl to bring this ongoing crisis to the forefront and open the lines of dialog again. Amanda’s unheard cries for help, and her final, desperate attempt to make the pain stop, is a failure of each and every one of us. Of every single Canadian in this country. There have been far too many such tragedies over the years for us to have any kind of excuse left.

I am so sorry that it took the death of an innocent, beautiful girl for us to pay attention. The very least that all of us, as a collective, can do now, is to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. To make sure that no teenager has to ever go through this again.

I didn’t know Amanda Todd, but my sister did. The look of pain on her face will haunt me for all my days.

Local real estate agents organize charity Thanksgiving dinner at church

Thanksgiving. It’s the wonderful time of year when people of all colour and creed in North America join together and show their appreciation for everything they have in life. It’s a time of home-cooked meals, joyful table banter and full stomachs; a time when, for one day, everything is right with the world, and most concerns arise over who gets to have the last turkey leg.

However, recent economic turmoils have contributed to an ever-growing number of people slipping below the poverty line, or else managing to just stay afloat. Businesses closing down, companies “down-sizing” their staff, banks forcing foreclosures down decent folks’ throats… never is the harsh reality of life felt more bitterly prevalent than in times of holiday and celebration.

And so, it truly is amazing and inspiring when good-natured people join together and voluntarily devote their time, energy and resources to do something kind and wonderful for the community. A significant portion of local, Maple Ridge-based real-estate agents, who wish to remain anonymous, have been getting together, donating their money and staging a free Thanksgiving dinner at the St. Patrick’s school hall annually for a whopping 16 years in a row.

Admittance if free for anyone and everyone that is unable to provide for either themselves, or themselves and their families, and no reservation is necessary. Just show up, grab one of the hundreds of seats set up along the 20 or so horizontal tables available, get a nice, hot cup of java (or juice for the kids,) a paper plate, and join the line waiting to be served delicious, hot turkey, mashed potatoes, soft bread and veggies.

The organizer of the event, Joan W., simply said that this tradition was initially started because, “we saw a need.”

Now, 16 years later, the event is much bigger – around 400 people were expected to join in the festivities – and various other organizations, such as the Salvation Army, have also joined to help out.

The slightly lime-green walls of the school hall are packed with people; laughter, excited talk and general festive cheer virtually reverberate off the ceiling and floor. Tables stack almost as far as the premises would allow, covered with a simple, plastic white sheet and lined with chairs on either side. Two bright, orange pumpkins squarely sit along the coverall, decorated with marker-penned facial features and drying, purple and yellow autumn leaves.

However, the chatter isn’t the only thing catching the ear: a band is on the small stage near the entrance, playing lively, funky country music. The singer seems surprisingly young, though his voice effortlessly catches and latches on to all the right Country notes. On the stage floor, all around them, sit more than half a hundred pumpkins.

The guests are from all walks of life; all ages and nationalities. Little kids are running around and laughing, their parents watching fondly. The best part is still yet to come. A final gift after the meal.

On the table along and below the stage, there rest hundreds of colorful, take-away-style paper bags, decorated by the drawings and paintings of the school’s kids, neatly lined up into rows and barely registering with the public in light of everything else that is going on. Inside the bags are toothbrushes, napkins, sweets and lollipops. A final gesture of good will and charity from the people that have already provided a spectacular dinner for hundreds. It’s enough to warm the heart twice over. This anonymous group of real estate agents, local volunteers from the community and every other organization that decided to pitch in, has truly upheld the tradition of Thanksgiving this year, almost two decades’ worth of the past, and hopefully for a long time yet to come in the future… they have made Maple Ridge proud, and most importantly, because of them, hundreds of people now truly have something to be thankful for.