Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has signalled that marijuana legalization is imminent, yet arrests for pot-related crimes continue across the country, leading experts and advocates to call for an end to the prosecution of marijuana offences clogging up Canada’s court system.
Marc and Jodie Emery, known as the so-called “Prince and Princess of Pot,” were arrested earlier this week and appeared in a courtroom Friday to face drug trafficking, conspiracy and possession charges.
Their case highlights the thousands who have been arrested as the Trudeau government grapples with how to legalize pot and new legislation expected later this spring.
Neil Boyd, a criminologist with Simon Fraser University in B.C., says he doesn’t understand the logic of continuing arrests for possession of marijuana, which can leave people with criminal records and contribute to Canada’s overburdened justice system.
“Why not use civil penalties and civil remedies rather than criminal remedies?” Boyd told Global News. “There’s just no good reason for keeping criminal charges of possession on the books.”
WATCH: Marc and Jodie Emery face multiple charges as marijuana dispensaries raided across Canada
Jenna Valleriani, a PhD student at the University of Toronto who studies Canada’s medical marijuana market, says arrests for possession and raids are the result of cities and police forces feeling “pressure” to act on a rise in dispensaries.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a statement that until new legislation has been enacted, police will continue charging people for weed-related crimes.
“Until Parliament has enacted new legislation and new rules are in place to ensure that cannabis is carefully regulated, current laws remain in force and should be obeyed,” the minister said.
“We respect the role that local law enforcement and agencies have in charging people for criminal offences. At this time cannabis is still a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Storefronts are not authorized to sell cannabis for medical reasons or any other purpose.”
In 2015, the most recent year of available data, Statistics Canada said there were 49, 577 marijuana possession-related incidents reported by police. More than 21,000 people were charged as a result. Those numbers are down from 2014 when there 57,880 possession-related incidents and roughly 25,000 people charged.
WATCH: Canadian marijuana legalization timeline
A C.D. Howe Institute report from last year suggested Ottawa should consider pardoning people convicted of marijuana possession – and drop any outstanding charges – to free up substantial resources for legalization of the drug
Statistics Canada says the total number of criminal charges for 2016 won’t be released until June, but the past year has seen hundreds of arrests related to illegal dispensaries in Toronto.
The police raids on Cannabis Culture stores, linked to the Emerys, in Vancouver and Toronto were part of a Toronto police investigation called Project Gator, which has previously targeted marijuana dispensaries and led to dozens of arrests last May.
“Does that justify the use of our police resources? I don’t think so.”
WATCH: Pot legalization ‘around the corner’ amid arrest of Marc Emery
Tammy Robbinson, spokeswoman for the City of Toronto’s municipal licensing and standards division, said the sale of marijuana in retail stores is illegal under federal law and in violation of the city’s zoning bylaws, adding other dispensaries could be targeted in the future.
Meanwhile, while the Liberals have touted pending legislation around recreational pot that is expected to be announced this spring, they have said there is no clear timeline as to when Canadians will be legally allowed to buy recreational weed.
“People need to recognize that things take time,” Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said Thursday. “This is something that has to be done correctly. It’s something that we feel very strongly about as a government. It’s a firm commitment of our government to legalize access to cannabis, to regulate that access and to restrict it appropriately.”
Bill Blair, the Liberal’s point man on marijuana regulation, made similar statements in an interview with Bloomberg News.
“We will take as much time as it takes to do it right,” said Blair, the parliamentary secretary to Canada’s justice minister. “I’m pretty reluctant to suggest a specific time frame, frankly, because I don’t know how long this will take in each of our 10 provinces and three territories.”
In the meantime, the criminal charges laid during last year’s raids in Toronto are slowly making their way through the courts.
“The prosecutors aren’t pursuing them very vigorously,” defence lawyer Paul Lewin told Global News last October. “All the signs are that they’re not very interested in this, and that they’ve been saddled with this giant mess. It’s the same with the police.”
“We’re looking at 200 or 300 people charged…It’s an incredible load for the criminal justice system, which is already overburdened.”
*With files from Patrick Cain, Adam Miller and The Canadian Press