R. Jeanette Martin
Explaining Toronto's pot possession numbers
While in most jurisdictions the rate of cannabis offences for possession among youth has remained steady, the number of young kids being pinched is going up here (from 144.3 in 2004 to 158.4 per 100,000 population in 2011).
• More youths (between 12 and 17) were charged with pot possession by Toronto police in 2011 (656) than were all persons charged with possession of all other drugs (548).
To what should we attribute the increase in charges against youth?
In part to more pot-smoking among young people. Almost half of all kids report having smoked marijuana, compared to 28 per cent a decade ago. But that doesn't completely explain the significant bump in the numbers charged. Police practices and policies, as well as targeted crackdowns, have led to more charges, according to two recent papers published by Statistics Canada (Trends In Police-Reported Drug Offences In Canada, 2009, by Mia Dauvergne; Police-Reported Crime Statistics, 2011, by Shannon Brennan).
Don't cops have better things to do than police pot?
You'd think. The irony is that crime in all other categories has been steadily declining while pot possession charges have been increasing.
Is the "war on drugs" really a war on pot?
The question has been asked by analysts at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition: are pot charges going up because police are spending less time, due to declining rates, fighting other crimes?
• The raw numbers seem to indicate as much, but it's hard to know for sure.
• Police charging patterns seem to follow the political lead. In 2003, when legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana was tabled, police reported a 7 per cent drop in drug offences.
An interesting wrinkle in the data
Police are letting more youths stopped for pot possession go free without charges. In 2003, 645 youths were not charged. In 2011, there were 1,487.
• Those numbers suggest police are using some discretion. But their overall propensity is still to lay charges when pot is involved - the low-hanging fruit when it comes to drug crimes - and leave it to the courts to handle.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) drug policy advocates a "balanced approach"
• It also "endorses the practice of police discretion in individual communities." But there's a big "but." CACP also "believes there should be emphasis on enforcement of laws against the possession/illegal use of drugs where the users are engaged in bahaviours that harm or interfere in the lawful use or enjoyment of public or private property, and contribute to street disorder."
• This last bit about marijuana laws needing to be enforced when pot poses a public nuisance is interesting. We have civil remedies for drinking and smoking in public. Why not pot?
Are police paying too much attention to the small fry in the drug chain?
• Yes, domestic production of marijuana is more than eight times what it was in the 1970s. However, that's not the case in Toronto, where the number of persons charged with production was only slightly higher in 2011 (33) than in '03 (29).
•More serious marijuana offences for trafficking, importation and exportation are all down since 2003.
What about the suggestion that pot fuels organized crime?
• Weapons are often associated with drugs, but they're only involved in a relatively small number - approximately 14 per cent - of all drug offences.
Would easier access to pot mean higher rates of use?
That hasn't been the experience in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, where possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized but usage rates are comparable to neighbouring countries where pot possession is still illegal.
Police point to the social costs of drug abuse to justify stricter enforcement
But even the literature they cite to make their case, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse 2002 report, shows the costs associated with alcohol and tobacco abuse are almost twice those for illegal drugs.
The blueprint for a more sensible drug policy
In the absence of progressive federal policies, a marijuana referendum?
• In BC, where pot production is a multi-billion-dollar industry, signatures are being collected to push the province to pass a Sensible Policing Act directing police not to search and arrest people for simple possession.
• The Union of British Columbia Municipalities, fed up with growing enforcement costs, passed a resolution at its meeting last September calling for the decriminalization and taxation of marijuana. Who'll lead the charge here?
Toronto police's war on pot
4,423 Persons charged with drug offences by Toronto police in 2003
2,402 Persons charged with marijuana possession in 2003 - that's 54 per cent of all persons charged with drug offences
7,450 Persons charged with drug offences by Toronto police in 2011
4,673 Persons charged with marijuana possession in 2011 - that's 62 per cent of all persons charged with drug offences
About half Cases involving drug offences that were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged by the courts in Canada in 2007
$100 million Annual justice-related costs of prosecuting cannabis possesion charges in Canada, according to a 1979 report of Health Canada's health protection branch
66 Percentage of Ontarians who believe marijuana should be decriminalized or legalized.