Critics lambaste marijuana charges

By GLORIA GALLOWAY UPDATED AT 1:42 PM EDT



Monday, Aug. 11, 2003 During a decade when Canadians grew increasingly tolerant of marijuana use, the number of simple possession charges more than doubled -- a trend that critics say increased the costs of running an already overburdened court system.
Charges for marijuana hit 50,246 across Canada in 2002, according to recently released figures from Statistics Canada. That compares with 1992, when there were 23,178.
The steady rise came to a halt in Ontario this spring when a series of court decisions effectively obliterated marijuana-possession laws, and police chiefs told their officers to stop laying charges when they found small quantities.
But critics point out that the reprieve will last only until the federal government changes the law, perhaps decriminalizing the drug and instituting fines -- and they say the climbing number of possession charges before the spring suggests a justice system that is disingenuous.
Before spring, police and the Crown "always maintained that they are approaching marijuana with increased tolerance and leniency, but the numbers undercut that completely," said Alan Young, a York University law professor who represents people who want increased access to the drug.
" The only major [criminal] law-reform measure on the table right now in terms of changing existing law is marijuana decriminalization. Yet it is one of the only offences that has consistently been increasing over the past 10 years."
Diane Riley, an expert in drug policy at the University of Toronto, said police promised to ease up on those caught with a few joints while hitting harder on major traffickers.
But "what the data show is that the actual number of charges against the really big traffickers dropped down," Dr. Riley said. "They are saying one thing and they are doing another."
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which has spoken strongly against decriminalization, did not return calls to offer explanations for the dramatic rise in possession charges. Nor did the Canadian Police Association, which has taken a similar stand.
Prof. Young attributed the increasing charges to higher marijuana consumption driven, in part, by increased production of the plant in basements and attics. That, in turn, has made people less fearful of smoking the weed in the open.
There has also been increased tolerance, even on the part of those who do not smoke the drug. When Canadians were asked in a 1975 poll whether they favoured legalizing the use of marijuana, fewer than one in 20 respondents said yes. By 2001, nearly 47 per cent agreed that marijuana should be sold and used legally.
But still the charges increased. And as the charges increased, so did the costs of police, courts and the correctional service.
The federal Justice Department could provide no estimates of the cost to taxpayers in prosecutions of the average simple marijuana-possession charge.
Nor could Statscan give accurate numbers on convictions. Using broad figures that include drugs from heroin and cocaine to cannabis, the agency said there were only half as many convictions for drug possession in 2001-02 as there were charges. So it is safe to assume a large number did not make it through the courts.
But Prof. Young said that each charge that ends up in discharge or diversion program costs the courts a minimum of $1,000.
A report by the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy written in 2001 says that "although any estimate must be speculative, it appears reasonable to suggest that the enforcement cost for the offence of simple possession of cannabis is between $60- and $100-million per year."