Why marijuana laws still apply as Ottawa moves to legalization

The Liberals are moving toward legalizing pot in Canada, but in the meantime current laws remain in effect.
The Liberals are moving toward legalizing pot in Canada, but in the meantime current laws remain in effect. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

While Canada moves toward legalizing marijuana, laws surrounding possession still apply. That means you could still get arrested, charged and end up with a criminal record for carrying even a small amount of pot.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says prosecuting people for simple possession is a waste of resources, and is a vocal proponent of immediate decriminalization.

There were 104,000 drug-related offences reported by police in Canada in 2014, two-thirds (66 per cent) of which were cannabis-related and primarily for possession, according to Stats Canada.

“We’re moving towards the model of legalization, and more importantly public health regulation, and I would like to see us in the interim decriminalize marijuana,” Erskine-Smith says.

The government has said that is not going to happen, but Erskine-Smith says there are still options.

“I would like to see the justice minister issue a directive under the Director of Public Prosecutions Act to direct Crown counsel to, as a matter of public policy, not proceed with prosecutions for simple possession offences.”

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WATCH: When will Liberals legalize recreational marijuana?

Click to play video: 'When will Liberals legalize recreational marijuana?'
When will Liberals legalize recreational marijuana?

The Trudeau Liberals have stayed true to their election pledge to legalize marijuana, with MP Bill Blair taking a lead on the matter. But that doesn’t change the fact that drug possession is still a criminal offence.

Blair, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister and former Toronto police chief, has said Canada’s current approach to marijuana is failing, with reform desperately needed.

READ MORE: If Canada legalizes marijuana, how will cops combat high drivers?

“Our government has committed to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana in a careful and orderly way. And we will take the time that is necessary to get this right,” Blair said in a statement to Global News.

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“Until Parliament has enacted new legislation and new rules are in place to ensure that marijuana is carefully regulated, current laws remain in force and should be obeyed.”

That hard-lined, wait-and-see answer doesn’t cut it for Erskine-Smith.

“You’ve heard Bill Blair say ‘the law is the law is the law,’ and I happen to think that the law is unjust,” Erskine-Smith says.

READ MORE: Tourist pot use linked to ‘dramatic’ increase in ER visits in Colorado

Legal landscape already changing

We are already seeing a shift toward decriminalization, in a sense, says Vancouver criminal defence lawyer David Karp.

“It’s pretty rare for the guy smoking a joint on the street to get arrested and charged. Generally they’ll give them a warning,” Karp says.

“The Narcotics Act and the Criminal Code still exist, and marijuana is still a controlled substance, but it’s just being enforced less.”

Those who are charged can face anything from alternative measures (community supervision) to a jail sentence.

Karp, who believes legalization is “long overdue,” agrees it’s important to have the proper controls in place.

READ MORE: Pot at the pharmacy? Here are some ways marijuana could be sold in Canada

“Young persons access to it, where these things will be sold, what sort of quality control goes into the product, marketing, all these sorts of questions need to be addressed before they simply make it legal,” says Karp.

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Blair says strict regulation and framework is needed to “keep it out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals.”

Meanwhile, the feds could profit quite nicely from pot’s legalization: a CIBC World Markets report estimates the government could haul in as much as $5 billion annually in tax revenue for legal marijuana sales.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maintains that legalized pot will not be a cash cow, and that all revenues will be used to address public health and addictions issues.

With a file from the Canadian Press

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