Last year, more than 5,000 Canadians faced prosecution for cannabis possession, even as the federal government moved forward with plans to legalize the drug.
New numbers obtained by VICE News from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the federal agency responsible for prosecuting drug crimes, provide a glimpse into how marijuana crimes were prosecuted across Canada in 2016, the year the Liberals announced their plan to introduce legislation to legalize the drug. The numbers also reflect the ongoing trend that possession charges make up a significant portion of all cannabis-related charges.
The agency reports there were 6,216 total criminal court files open involving cannabis, with 5,199 of those charges listed as simple cannabis possession. The rest of that number comprises 853 possession for the purpose of trafficking charges, and only 164 trafficking charges, all of which involve only cannabis. The actual total number of criminal files are likely much higher as these numbers do not include all cannabis charges prosecuted in Quebec and New Brunswick, where the provinces prosecute such offences if the arrest was not made by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
These statistics cover only circumstances where the prosecution service pursued charges at trial, and not cases where police issued a warning or a ticket. Police-reported crime statistics, compiled by Statistics Canada, report 21,315 number of people charged for cannabis possession in 2015 alone, a slight decline from the 24,535 people reportedly charged the year before. There were 6,020 people charged with cannabis trafficking in 2015, which is a significant drop from the 7,670 people charged for that offence in 2014.
That agency won’t publish its 2016 numbers until later this year.
Since the government introduced its bill to legalize cannabis earlier this month, there’s been a growing chorus of legal experts and cannabis activists calling for a blanket moratorium on all future cannabis possession charges, as well as pardons for all those who have been previously convicted of those crimes. But those calls have been quashed by the justice and public safety ministers who say that such measures would go against the government’s goal of implementing a strict regime to regulate cannabis.
Over the last year, police forces have been cracking down on black market cannabis dispensaries that have popped up in most major cities, especially in Ottawa and Toronto. And even though the proposed legislation to legalize marijuana would make it legal to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, it’s currently not a free-for-all even for those who have even a small amount. Just this month, the RCMP slapped a production and possession charge against a 48-year-old Alberta woman over a single marijuana plant at her home.
VICE Canada will sit down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday evening for a special talk on his cannabis legalization plan.