Pot arrests in Canada drop amid uncertainty over laws

Toronto Globe and Mail 8/1/2004

OTTAWA - The number of people charged with possession of marijuana fell by 30 percent in Canada last year as police turned a blind eye to dope smokers due to uncertainty over the country's pot laws, Statistics Canada reported last week. "This drop may have been, in part, a result of a climate of uncertainty among police, given recent court rulings questioning the constitutionality of current laws regarding cannabis possession," the study said.

The drop in marijuana charges in 2003 contributed to an overall 8 percent drop in drug prosecutions in Canada, the first such decline since 1993.

Prime Minister Paul Martin says he plans to reintroduce legislation this fall that would decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana - 15 grams or less. A similar bill died when the last election was called.

Police were more likely to use discretion due to the proposed law in possession cases involving small amounts of pot, said Brian Miller, chief administrative officer for the Ontario Police Association.

"For a while there, it was hard for us to get convictions because of the challenges in court," he said. "It's pretty rare for officers to charge first-time offenders in these cases. There's a lot of discretion involved."

Last year, 41,237 marijuana possession charges were reported. Marijuana possession accounts for nearly half of all reported drug crimes.

The report also found that British Columbia has had the highest rate of drug crimes among the provinces for the past 20 years. It was the only province to show an increase (by 6 percent) in reported drug charges in 2003, including a 3 percent hike in prosecutions of marijuana possession.

Conservative justice critic Vic Toews criticized Ottawa for taking so long to move on its marijuana reform bill. He said it leaves law enforcement officers in limbo on how to proceed on marijuana possession cases involving small amounts.

"It results in unequal justice across the country," he said. "It's not consistent."

Toews said the federal government must implement a national drug strategy if it proceeds with the bill to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Last week's report follows a Statscan study released that showed the percentage of Canadians who have admitted using marijuana has almost doubled - from 6.5 percent to 12.2 percent between 1989 and 2002.

The Liberal government wants to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and have the offenses dealt with through tickets and fines instead of criminal charges. Supporters argue that simple possession cases take up too many resources that could be better used to fight more serious crimes and that the offense does not warrant a criminal record.