A man lights a marijuana joint as he participates in the 4/20 protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 20, 2015.
OTTAWA — Some criminal trial judges are questioning why people continue to be prosecuted for simple possession of marijuana while the Liberal government moves to legalize the narcotic, the country’s most senior prosecutors told parliamentarians Thursday.
“People in my community, I’m talking the police and others, they don’t know what’s going on,” NDP MP committee member and health critic Murray Rankin said Thursday.
“These people have talked about reform, why can’t they decriminalize in the near term, why can’t they show us a road map of where we’re going in marijuana?”
As long as the current law is on the books, Paulson said Mounties will not turn a blind eye to people engaged in serious criminal enterprises involving marijuana or where children could be harmed. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has made a similar declaration.
Yet on Thursday, Conservative MP and former justice minister Rob Nicholson told fellow justice committee members that he is hearing of “more and more instances” of people growing marijuana. He asked whether federal drug prosecutors across the country are noting related changes.
Brian Saunders, director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, replied, “what we’ve heard occasionally from prosecutors, sometimes the courts are questioning why we’re proceeding with these cases given the government has announced its intention in the future to legalize the possession of marijuana.
“The position we’ve taken is quite simply that until Parliament has enacted a new law, the current law remains in force and if cases are referred to us, we will conduct our usual assessment, and if it meets our threshold test for prosecution, we will continue to prosecute that case.”
That test is a reasonable prospect of conviction and that the prosecution serves the public interest.
Pressed further, George Dolhai, deputy director of prosecutions, told the committee of one current case, “where the judge has indicated a concern that may (lead) to not proceeding.” He said he had no further details.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, testifying this week before another Commons committee, said, “there’s a misunderstanding, it seems to me, in the Canadian consciousness,” whether possessing and dealing in marijuana remains a crime.
The House of Commons justice committee heard that one magistrate is even considering whether to continue with a simple-possession case before the court given the Liberal’s promise to turn pot consumption into a legal, regulated recreational activity.
In the meantime, the federal government is spending upwards of $4 million a year prosecuting those caught with small, personal stashes of the drug, the committee was told. Tens of millions more is spent on police, jail and court costs. In 2014 alone, 22,000 people were charged with marijuana-related crimes.
The government has not announced a timetable for when it intends to introduce its reform legislation and growing public uncertainty over the state of law is clearly frustrating police and others.
As they spoke, Liberal MP committee member and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, the government’s point man on the pot file, said nothing. He later spoke privately with Saunders and Dolhai and did not speak to reporters.
Blair recently told a gathering of independent Liberal Senators that the current approach to marijuana, “is simply failing in our public safety and our public health goals.”
But he insisted government has a duty to maintain a hard line on continuing federal prosecutions for minor offences until marijuana is on the same legal footing as alcohol and tobacco. He said cabinet will later likely consider whether to suspend some previous convictions.
Blair repeated government statements that a federal-provincial-territorial task force will be announced “in the coming weeks,” to consult experts and others on a framework for the proposed legislation, which is expected to contain strict provisions to regulate and tax the drug.
Rankin, from Victoria, said the government needs to move faster.
“I’m told in other communities in Canada, (the law against simple possession) is being used to as a tool to harass young people, sometimes people of visible minorities, indigenous people. Having opened the door to a reform proposal, there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis, the status quo obviously isn’t working.”
SOURCES: news.nationalpost.com, by IAN MCLEOD, OTTAWA