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
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
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
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."