Charges and convictions for cannabis-related crimes have dropped by more than half over the past year in Canada. However, those rates vary significantly across the country, raising concerns about the uneven application of justice ahead of legalization on October 17.
According to an analysis conducted by The Logic of Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) data obtained via access to information requests, there were 5,594 charges for possession of cannabis in 2017-2018, compared with 11,818 charges in 2016-2017. Similarly, possession convictions fell by more than half over the same period, from 2,515 to 1,041.
Cannabis possession charges are the highest per capita in the National Capital Region of Canada, which includes Ottawa and Gatineau, Que.. There were 80 charges per 100,000 people in 2017-2018, well above the national average of 29 charges per 100,000. By contrast, there were two charges per 100,000 in British Columbia the same year.
Cannabis possession charge and conviction rates have decreased significantly since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, despite the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s direction to continue prosecuting the offence as usual. However, the numbers vary widely across the country, raising logistical questions about charging people with a crime that will soon be legal—and concerns about the uneven application of justice.
Bill Bogart, a law professor at the University of Windsor, said that even though fewer people are being charged and convicted, justice is being applied unevenly—a pot smoker is more likely to be charged with possession in some parts of the country than others.
“The way people were being charged is deeply disturbing in terms of fundamental applications of the law,” Bogart said.
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David Taylor, a spokesperson for Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, told The Logic that the Liberal government has not asked law enforcement to reduce the number of people charged or convicted with cannabis possession. When asked how they account for the reduction, the Attorney General’s office said that question was better asked of police.
Natalie Wright, a communications advisor with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said police agencies use their own discretion and are likely focusing enforcement efforts on more harmful drugs.
“It appears that the downturn in arrests related to cannabis coincides with the start of the opioid crisis,” said Wright. “As a result, police efforts are likely being directed to disrupt this crisis or to address other crimes that have a greater impact on the safety and security of individual communities in Canada.”
About the data
The Logic obtained over 20 years of cannabis conviction and charges data from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada 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.
The actual number of charges and convictions is likely greater than reported because the PPSC only prosecutes charges laid by the RCMP in Quebec and New Brunswick. Offences prosecuted under the Youth Criminal Justice Act are also excluded.
The cannabis possession data obtained by The Logic was not broken down by racial group, but a recent Vice News investigation found that Black and Indigenous people have been overrepresented in cannabis possession arrests across the country since Trudeau’s election.
“We have good evidence that minorities were charged much more frequently than white people, even though there’s evidence that minorities don’t use this drug with any greater frequency,” Bogart said.