When I called up Vancouver city council candidate Mary Jean "Watermelon" Dunsdon last month, it was on the eve of her "arrest-a-versary."On a September afternoon back in 2001, police dragged her off a nude beach in Vancouver, where she regularly sold watermelon and pot cookies. "You never forget your first," she told VICE.Looking back, 16 years and three acquittals later, Watermelon sees that arrest in her early 20s as a defining moment of her life—one that somewhat paradoxically led her to run for office. "Three hundred people stood up to protest my arrest," she recalls of the Wreck Beach showdown. "The community stood up and said you got the wrong girl, she's one of us. There's literally photos of people shaking fists and children crying."
Dunsdon says the run-in helped her "grow up real fast," and solidified her tendency to stand up for herself in the face of power. She says it's something she picked up as a self-described military brat, and perfected as her own legal representation decades later. "My father reeked of authority so hard, so it was hard for other people to intimidate me."Dunsdon's name will be on the ballot of a Vancouver by-election on Saturday, her first kick at politics after retiring from nude beach vending in 2015. From a quick survey of my friends, I know I'm not the only person whose Facebook and Instagram feeds have been stacked with her campaign ads all week. With legalization on the horizon, and uncertainty still surrounding the regulation of dispensaries in BC, her campaign aims to ride weed-centred politics from the fringes into the mainstream.Of course, she's up against some impressive left-leaning candidates that speak to the city's most endemic social issues. Longtime social justice activist Jean Swanson is proposing a mansion tax to fund low-income housing. Gregor Robertson's Vision party wants to elect young refugee and community worker Diego Cardona. Green party's Pete Fry and One City's Judy Graves both bring a ton of experience on the environment and homelessness. (On her part, Dunsdon says she's been getting a "crash course" in affordability issues.)
But Watermelon also has the backing of a city hero known for saving lives on the front lines of the opioid crisis. Sarah Blyth, who has been running an overdose prevention site for a year now and has been part of a local movement to switch entrenched opioid users to cannabis as a pain alternative, recently chipped in her public support.
For a candidate that has made a career out of smoking, baking and eating pot ("it's as awesome as it sounds"), Blyth's cosign and her push for more street drug testing brings in a certain level of seriousness. "People need safe access to clean medication," she told VICE. "It's a huge issue."Tough competition means Watermelon may not stick the landing this time, but if her giant new campaign bus is any indication, she's unabashedly in this for the long haul. In fact, for years she's been throwing parties, giving away cutesy half-serious buttons advertising her run for mayor in 2024. If anything, this is an early test run that will lend to her some legitimacy when the city votes again post-legalization in 2018.Patrick Smith, political science professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, told VICE he's not surprised to see more "wind in the sails" of weed-focused politicians. "My own sense is that it's probably tied to it being better funded," he told VICE. "The dispensaries, which I'll use as a catch-all for the marijuana industry, they certainly have an interest in preserving a model that leaves them as important players in the system."
Watermelon herself is a one-woman weed business with a not-insignificant stake in the industry's future. She runs a bakery that sells to dispensaries outside Vancouver (edibles are currently banned in the city) and has appeared in her own online cooking show. "I think they need me, because I have an intimate understanding of the community," she said. "I'm a perfect candidate because if you want to have meaningful discussion, you need to have me at the table."
British Columbia has yet to announce how it will regulate cannabis, but local dispensaries are banking on a model that allows both non-government "craft" growers and free-market dispensaries. This would be a notable diversion from Ontario's recently-announced liquor board model, where all pot stores will be government-run.The BC Compassion Club Society, one of the city's longest-running medicinal dispensaries, has yet to be licensed under the City of Vancouver's rules, which don't allow pot shops near schools and community centres. They've been seeking exception for more than a year.Emerald Asuncion, who works in communications for the society, says they've been looking closely at all the candidates' weed policies, and have been mostly encouraged by what they've seen. "We have been paying attention and keeping our members informed that there's a by-election," Asuncion told VICE. "But we've always remained non-partisan—we're not focusing on specifically one candidate."Of all the "cannabis friendly" candidates, Asuncion agrees Watermelon is especially connected in the weed community. And while her society hasn't made any political donations, she's not surprised to see the industry support one of its own. (VICE asked Dunsdon for comment on the makeup of her political donors, but did not receive a response by press time).Smith told VICE campaign financing in local politics is still under regulated, like the "wild west" system that's getting overhauled at the provincial level. That means weed money has a potential to go a long way (on Instagram, at the very least) for years to come. But he's more concerned about the uneven way pot policies are enforced across neighbouring suburbs—something that could come to a head when all cities vote in 2018.In Vancouver at least, where dispensary crackdowns are exceedingly rare, the weed industry has officially put down roots. Watermelon wants to tap those pot shops for votes in a way that wasn't possible even a year ago. But even with an insider perspective, Watermelon herself isn't certain where things could go next."I think this race chose me," she said. "It's just swirled into the perfect storm."Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.