Police in Ontario have been writing about 21 tickets a day for cannabis-related offences since legalization last October, data released by the province shows.
The provincial tickets, laid under the same system as traffic tickets, are separate from the federal Cannabis Act, which provides for long prison sentences.
The most common charge (1,047 of 1,652) was having cannabis available in a vehicle.
“Basically it’s if you have a joint in a cup holder or a small baggie in a cup holder. If you have cannabis in your vehicle, it should be in the trunk,” Toronto-based lawyer Jack Lloyd said.
Lloyd points out that the charge applies even if the cannabis can’t be immediately consumed — if there’s a bag of dried flower in the front seat, for example.
“It’s completely arbitrary, and it’s not rationally connected to the purpose of the legislation, which is to prevent impaired driving.”
On paper, fines for most offences can reach $100,000 for an individual, but Lloyd hasn’t seen anything remotely close to that.
“I know a guy who represented himself and resolved it himself for $500. He paid the ticket and was on his way.”
“The largest traffickers max out at $25,000 — that would be a big fine.”
The data show strong regional differences in enforcement across the province. A region including York, Durham, Bracebridge and Peterborough saw 107 teens ticketed for underage cannabis possession, far more than any other area. Toronto only had 57.
“There’s less crime, so the police have less to do,” Lloyd says. “It’s easier for them to focus on cannabis. It’s easy to smell, it’s easy to find who has it.”
“I’ve had simple possession charges up there where I had to work like a maniac to have them resolved.”
A charge of being someone under 19 in possession of cannabis attracts a fine of at most $200, which can be waived if the teen goes to an approved drug education program.
However, Toronto police wrote almost all the province’s tickets for unlawful sale of cannabis (184 of 224) or being a landlord of a building where cannabis is being sold illegally (22 of 24). The pattern of charges is consistent with shutting down a large number of dispensaries.
There were only three cases of someone being charged with distributing cannabis to someone under 19. The federal Cannabis Act bans distributing cannabis to someone under 18 (with a potential 14-year prison sentence).
The charge is only likely to be laid in the narrow situation where the person is 18 — legal under federal law, underage for provincial law.
Lloyd also points out that grey-market dispensaries are very rigid about excluding underage customers — some don’t let in anyone under 21, just to be on the safe side.
The data covers the period from October 17 of last year through January 3.
Much like traffic charges, the courts can only cope if a small number of people fight their tickets.
“It’s a massive, massive influx into an already busy court,” Lloyd says. “If people fight them, it will overwhelm the system, to be perfectly frank.”