More than 15,000 people have been charged with possession of marijuana and more than 2,000 have been convicted since the Trudeau government was elected in October 2015 on a platform to legalize the drug.
The prosecutions have continued despite the Liberals’ commitment to make pot legal by July 2018, though it seems the numbers may have dropped since they took office.
“The fact remains that we still have people receiving criminal convictions for a substance that the government intends to legalize,” said NDP justice critic Alistair MacGregor, who requested the figures tabled in the House of Commons this week. “(The Liberals) realize the effect a criminal record has on people’s lives.”
Between October 2015 and April 2017, nearly 7,000 people aged 25 and under were charged with marijuana possession, and 774 were convicted, according to numbers from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
More than 8,300 people older than 25 were charged, and 1,361 were convicted.
The total numbers are likely even higher, because in Quebec and New Brunswick the prosecution service only deals with offences being investigated by the RCMP, not other police agencies. It also doesn’t prosecute offences under the Youth Criminal Justice Act in all provinces.
The number of convictions could also increase significantly, as half of the prosecutions are still in progress.
The NDP has been urging the government to decriminalize marijuana as an interim measure until it’s legalized.
“I have always maintained that (prosecutions are) a sincerely unfair practice to continue on the road to legalization,” MacGregor said.
“I just feel that there could have been a different way to approach this.”
The Liberals tabled their pot legislation, Bill C-45, in April, and plan to legalize marijuana by July 2018. They are selling the law as a way to protect minors and to cut off profits to organized crime.
“Until Bill C-45 becomes law, the existing laws regarding cannabis remain in effect,” Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told the National Post in a statement. “The decisions to arrest and prosecute reside with the relevant police forces and with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.”
Still, it seems the number of possession charges may have declined since the Liberals were elected.
According to Statistics Canada, about 21,000 people were charged with cannabis possession in 2015, a drop of about 3,000 from the year before. Official figures for 2016 will be available in July.
In comparison, the prosecution service is reporting a total of 15,300 charges in the first 18 months since the 2015 election.
But that’s just because certain police detachments have become more lenient about enforcing marijuana laws, MacGregor said, including in his home riding on Vancouver Island.
In other places, he said, “the police are coming down still quite hard on marijuana possession charges,” which he finds unfair.
“The justice that is meted out to you depends on where you are in Canada.”
During a forum with VICE Canada in April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted that the government might consider pardoning some Canadians with marijuana convictions after pot is legalized.
“We’ll take steps to look at what we can do for those folks who have criminal records for something that would no longer be criminal,” he said.
In that interview, he disclosed how his father, the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, used his “connections” to make marijuana charges disappear against younger brother Michel in 1998.
A recent poll by The Globe and Mail/Nanos Research shows that 62 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support pardoning those with criminal records for pot possession.
But the Liberals have been reluctant to say any more on the matter.
During debate of the new bill in the House of Commons on Thursday, Health Minister Jane Philpott said it would be “premature” to consider amnesty for people with previous convictions.
As for decriminalization, she said, it “would not in fact address our policy objectives here, which are to keep cannabis out of the hands of kids and to keep the profits out of the hands of criminals.”
MacGregor said he plans to keep pushing the government for a clearer position on past convictions.
Legalizing pot was a major campaign promise from the Liberals. The bill is going through second reading, but is not expected to pass before the summer.