Federal prosecutors are handling about half of the minor marijuana possession charges that they did before the last federal election, figures released to Global News show.
In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the last of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, federal Crowns prosecuted over 8,000 charges for possession of cannabis under 30 grams. The following year, that had fallen to about 6,000, and in the 2016-17 fiscal year, it was just over 4,000. (The law assumes that amounts under 30 grams are for personal use, not trafficking.)
Federal Crowns prosecute most of Canada’s drug cases. There are exceptions: in some cases, provincial Crowns in New Brunswick and Quebec prosecute drug offences, as do provincial Crowns elsewhere in Canada if the drug charges are part of a larger set of criminal charges.
Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer Paul Lewin says he’s seen fewer simple possession charges for pot in recent years.
“If a cop walks up to someone in a park and they’re smoking a joint, I think they’re less likely to lay a charge yesterday than they might have a couple of years ago,” he says. “But don’t think that that law on the books isn’t playing an intrusive role in our lives.”
Police awareness that legalization is coming, plays a role, he says. And society’s increasing tolerance for marijuana means that busy courts have less interest in punishing low-level users.
“Courts are overwhelmed. Try being a prosecutor showing up to a busy trial court and prosecuting someone for five grams of marijuana. You will have an unhappy judge on your hands, when there’s a domestic abuse case that can’t make it to court on time, or a stabbing or a shooting.”
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has promised to have a system for selling legal recreational marijuana in place by the summer of 2018.
The Liberals have been criticized in some quarters for keeping marijuana prohibition in place at all in the meantime, but they defend it as necessary.
“If you’re decriminalizing possession but you’re not creating a legal framework for producing it, then it’s still going to be organized crime producing it — the Hells Angels, street gangs controlling the sale of marijuana,” Trudeau said in April.
“Until we have a system in place that is a better system than our current system, the current system has to stand.”