Couldn't decide if this should go into marijuana, law and order or news. Mods, feel free to relocate.
Pot busts bounce back
Since decriminalization bill died early last year, it's `business as usual' on marijuana arrests
Jul 09, 2007 04:30 AM
OTTAWA–The number of people arrested for smoking pot rose dramatically in several Canadian cities last year after the Conservatives took office and killed a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
The spike in arrests for simple possession of cannabis appears in data compiled by The Canadian Press from municipal police forces through interviews and Access to Information Act requests.
National statistics will be released next week, but preliminary figures suggest the number of arrests jumped by more than one-third in several Canadian cities.
Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax reported increases of between 20 and 50 per cent in 2006, while Montreal and Calgary saw their number of arrests dip a few percentage points from the previous year.
As a result, thousands of people were charged with a criminal offence that recently was within a whisker of extinction.
Every party in the House of Commons except the Conservatives supported the decriminalization bill, but the Liberal government that sponsored it never brought it to a final vote.
Several police officials say the trend is linked directly to that aborted legislation, which died as a result of the federal election on Jan. 23, 2006.
Some forces simply stopped laying simple possession charges after the Liberals introduced the decriminalization bill under Jean Chrétien in 2003, said Terry McLaren, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
"Everybody was waiting for what was going to happen. ... There'd be no use clogging up the court system with that decriminalization bill there.
When that was defeated, I'd say it was business as usual."
The number of people charged plunged from 26,882 in 2002 and remained relatively steady, below 19,000, for the three years that decriminalization was being debated in Parliament.
But police say many pot smokers, especially younger ones, appear unaware that the bill didn't pass.
So even if marijuana consumption remains as illegal in Canada as it has been since 1923, police say some people are toking more boldly than they've ever toked before, which makes it easier to arrest them.
"You'd have a youth smoking a joint out on the street without any fear of being caught," said Toronto police Det. Doug McCutcheon.
The stillborn bill by the previous Liberal government would have made possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana a non-criminal offence punishable by fines starting at $150.
But Section 4 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the law that's still in effect, sets out a maximum six-month prison sentence and a $1,000 fine for anyone caught with 30 grams of marijuana or less.
Liberalization advocates say 600,000 Canadians unfairly carry a criminal record because of the law.
Only about half the people arrested for simple possession even get charged, and the vast majority of those who are charged for pot possession alone never do any time.
In some cases people are handcuffed, brought to jail, and strip-searched by police after being stopped. Others are just told to toss away their joint or are served papers ordering them to appear in court.
That erratic application infuriates critics of the status quo.
One pot activist has been arrested at least seven times, been strip-searched, forced to ride in a police van with more violent criminals, and was once stopped for carrying just enough weed to roll a tiny joint.
Marc-Boris St-Maurice compares that with the last time he was stopped by police, a few weeks ago on a trendy Montreal boulevard. The former leader and founder of the federal Marijuana party tossed away his joint on the sidewalk and ended up chatting casually with two officers about politics.
One Montreal cop who asked not to be identified said some officers can spend an entire career on the force without ever arresting the people they catch smoking a joint.
"I'd rather stop someone breaking into a house or stealing a car," he said.
He said some officers might lay charges in conjunction with an unrelated offence to increase the likelihood of a criminal conviction – for instance, if they detect pot during a domestic-abuse investigation.
One drug-policy expert points out that alcohol consumption and cigarette-smoking rates have plummeted since the 1970s, while pot use has risen.
Tighter controls and public awareness of the dangers associated with booze and cigarettes have succeeded where prohibition failed, said Eugene
Oscapella, a lawyer and criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.
"Going into the 21st century, we should know better than to bludgeon the use of this drug with criminal law," he said. "It doesn't work, hasn't worked, there's no prospect that it ever will work. Yet we continue to do it."