Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jul 2007
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 The London Free Press
Author: Alexander Panetta


The number of arrests spiked by more than one-third in some Canadian

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 CP from municipal police forces through interviews and
Access to Information Act requests.

National statistics will only 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 all reported increases of 20 to
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 just recently was within a whisker of extinction.

Every party in the House of Commons except the Conservatives supported
a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, 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
legislation, which died as a result of the federal election on Jan.
23, 2006.

The head of one police association said many forces simply stopped
laying charges after the Liberals first introduced a decriminalization
bill under Jean Chretien in 2003.

"There were several police jurisdictions not laying the simple . . .
possession charges," 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 never actually passed.

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 far 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.

"You go to any high school and do a quiz. Find out how many kids
realize that it takes three readings (in the House of Commons), plus
Senate approval, before something happens."

The stillborn bill by the previous Liberal government would have made
possession under 15 grams a non-criminal offence punishable by fines
starting at $150.

Section 4 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act 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 existing laws. They call the decision to
scrap decriminalization wrong-headed.

"It seems to me that the clock is turning backwards here," said New
Democrat MP Libby Davies, a persistent critic of current laws.

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, just a few weeks ago on a 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.
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