Until Canadian election victor Justin Trudeau legalizes marijuana, smoking a joint in some parts of Canada can still land you a criminal record.
Trudeau has said a Liberal government "will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana," though his timeline for doing so remains unclear. In the meantime, everyone who isn't licensed to sell or buy medicinal weed is at the mercy of local police forces.
Driven by outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ideological war on drugs, marijuana related incidents and charges went up 30 percent between 2006 and 2014, according to the CBC. Data shows the approach to enforcing marijuana laws varies dramatically across the country. According to Statistics Canada, the rates of pot possession charges in 2014 were the highest in Kelowna, BC, at 250 per 100,000 people, while the lowest was 11 per 100,000 in St. John's, Newfoundland, and Labrador. The average was 79.
In places like Saskatoon, there's a very good chance you'll be charged with a crime if you're caught smoking weed. Pot possession charges in the prairie city are among the highest in the country, at 112 per 100,000; charges are laid in nearly 80 percent of weed-related stops made.
Inspector Dave Haye of the Saskatoon Police Service told VICE his officers are instructed not to issue warnings to recreational weed smokers.
"We will charge on a leftover roach if we can," he said. "It's how we feel about the use of illicit drugs in this area."
Haye said marijuana is a gateway drug—a theory that's been disputed by scientific studies—and that his police force considers it a "public safety issue."
"The marijuana we have on streets today is not the marijuana of the late 60s," he said. "I know what's used in grow ops; the marijuana itself could have negative health impacts."
Leaving aside the fact that marijuana has been proven to be less harmful than legal substances, like alcohol and tobacco, Haye's comments actually make a decent argument for legalization—once marijuana is regulated, there will be oversight on things like quality control. But until that happens, Haye said he will continue to enforce the law to the harshest degree, even comparing smoking weed to driving under the influence of alcohol.
VICE reached out to law enforcement agencies across the country for reaction to Trudeau's position on marijuana. Of those that responded, none would speculate on the potential implications of legalization. Still, there are major differences in their approaches to marijuana-related offenses under the current laws.
Constable Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department said public safety is also a top concern in Vancouver, which is why cops there don't bother with "simple possession" charges.
"I can't think of a case in many, many years where that has happened," he said. Pot-related possession charges are issued to about 48 people per 100,000 in Vancouver.
Montague said there have been investigations involving dispensaries—of which there are more than 100 operating in a grey market in Vancouver—that require police attention. But, in general, "we are extremely busy dealing with violent drug dealers and drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl. Marijuana has simply not been a priority."
Victor Kwong, spokesman for Toronto police, said officers use discretion when deciding whether or not to enforce the law. Rates of possession charges in Toronto are slightly lower than the national average.
Two years ago, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police put forward a resolution calling for a ticketing option as an alternative to laying criminal charges. The federal government said it would consider that suggestion, but nothing became of it.
The rationale behind the ticketing scheme was two-fold: it would free up police and court resources required to pursue a criminal charge and it was considered a more fair option than saddling someone holding a small amount of pot with a criminal record.
Neil Boyd, director of Simon Fraser University's school of criminology, said even that position doesn't go far enough.
"The problem with the approach is they wanted to retain the criminal status of marijuana," he said. "I just don't think marijuana has a place in criminal law."
He characterized Saskatoon police's position on marijuana as "nonsense."
"Alcohol presents a much greater threat to public safety than cannabis ever could."
Boyd said young people are being hit especially hard by marijuana criminalization because "they tend to use marijuana more openly and frequently." And once convicted, finding employment and traveling become difficult if not impossible.
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The Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) prosecutes drug offenses in Canada. It would not agree to an interview with VICE but in a written statement said: "The PPSC prosecutes offenses that fall within its jurisdiction including those under the [Controlled Substances and Drug Act], based on the existing laws in place."
Randie Long, a former federal prosecutor and board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said profit could potentially be a motivator for loading up on marijuana prosecutions before the law changes.
Private law firms are hired to prosecute federal laws, he explained, and are paid based on the size of their caseloads.
"By definition, there is a built in bias in favor of marijuana prosecution because of the sheer bulk of Canadians using marijuana," he said, characterizing weed cases as the "low-hanging fruit" of drug prosecutions.
Long, who practices criminal and family law in Nanaimo, BC, told VICE criminal charges are laid for weed possession in Nanaimo likely because it's policed by the RCMP, as opposed to Vancouver, which has a local police board.
"Federal funding made it more attractive to run marijuana prosecutions in one place and not the other."
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