New data shows significant drop in cannabis possession convictions ahead of legalization


New data reveals that more than 17,000 people were charged with cannabis possession in Canada over a two-year period from April 2016 to March 2018. During that same period, 3,556 people were convicted for something that, come October 17, will be legal across the country. Critics argue that these charges are straining the criminal justice system, and may be preventing those with the most experience from participating in Canada’s burgeoning cannabis industry.

The Logic obtained over 20 years of data on conviction rates and charges for cannabis-related crimes from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) through access to information requests. The data show a precipitous decline both in charges and convictions for cannabis possession since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won the 2015 election on a promise to legalize cannabis.

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The number of charges fell almost 70 per cent from 17,836 instances in 2014-2015—the fiscal year prior to Trudeau’s election—to 5,594 in the most recent fiscal year. Conviction numbers dropped at an even steeper rate—nearly 80 per cent over the same period.

Talking Point

17,490 people were charged with cannabis possession and 3,556 were convicted since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power promising legalization. Critics argue that this strains the criminal justice system and bars some of those with the most experience from participating in Canada’s rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

While charge rates have decreased year-over-year since 2014, there are still substantial costs associated with charging and convicting individuals with cannabis possession. According to a recent report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, criminal justice costs associated with cannabis use totaled $1.8 billion in 2014. Given that an average arrest costs $15,364, more than $200 million may have been spent on cannabis possession arrests since Trudeau’s election. Charges, convictions, rehabilitation and incarceration all carry costs of their own.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said the government intends to keep charging people for cannabis possession right up until legalization.

“Once Bill C-45 is enacted, we will examine how to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted for minor possession offences,” said Bardsley.

That’s not enough for Don Davies, MP for Vancouver Kingsway and NDP health critic, who wants pardons for Canadians with criminal records for possession.

“I don’t accept in any way this very weak response by Minister Goodale and Minister [Jody] Wilson-Raybould that they somehow have their hands tied until October 17. There is no reason they couldn’t be working on this right now,” said Davies.

In the U.S., several states have prioritized pardons for past offenders well before legalizing cannabis. For example, Vermont legalized cannabis on July 1, but pardoned 192 individuals previously convicted of possession in January 2017.

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A recent report from CIBC projects that Canada’s legal market for cannabis use will approach $6.5 billion in retail sales by 2020, surpassing the amount spent on hard liquor. However, many of those who fought for legalization will not be able to participate in the industry.

READ MORE: People in Ottawa region about 35 times more likely to be charged for cannabis possession as those in B.C.

Jodie Emery is a cannabis rights activist who was charged with several cannabis-related offences last year. She said that until pardons are granted, activists, including herself, who pushed for legalization will be excluded from the legal cannabis industry because their criminal records will prevent them from getting jobs.

“They’re excluding the people who are the experts, who do have the connections and the knowledge,” Emery said.

About the data

The Logic obtained over 20 years of cannabis conviction and charge data from the PPSC through access to information requests. The data, which uses a fiscal year running from March 31 to April 1, was broken down into provinces and territories, as well as the Atlantic region and the National Capital Region (NCR), which includes Ottawa and Gatineau, Que. Data from the NCR is not counted in Ontario or Quebec. Data for Quebec and New Brunswick wasn’t included in charts, as PPSC only collects charges laid by the RCMP in those provinces. They also do not collect data on offences prosecuted under the Youth Criminal Justice Act anywhere in Canada.

Davies is concerned about the economic impact of preventing people with cannabis-related convictions from participating in a potentially lucrative industry.

“It’s not only cruelly ironic [and] unjust, but also actually foolish to have a policy that prevents people that have the most knowledge of cannabis from participating in the industry—people who have done the most work to change cannabis policy, often at the risk of their own personal liberty.”

The Canadian cannabis industry remains quite small. In the fall of 2017, there were only 55 licensed producers, according to a Statistics Canada survey. However, companies are expected to grow rapidly. Businesses in the industry reported total assets of $704.3 million in 2016, but said they planned to invest $788.6 million on new capital and land in 2017, roughly doubling their capacity.

With legalization only three months away, the PPSC has issued a directive telling federal prosecutors to continue prosecuting the crime. The directive was given June 20, just one day after the government’s cannabis legalization bill was passed by Parliament.