It was 20 years ago that Trevor Holness was arrested for marijuana possession in Vancouver. He had just turned 18 and was out with friends at the annual fireworks celebration on English Bay, Holness recounted in a telephone interview.
Today he lives in Burnaby as a family man with a career and a mortgage. But Holness conceded that back then, he was “a bit of a delinquent”.
“I was pulled aside during an altercation between my friends and some other friends,” he said of that night. “And I was arrested.”
Police found a 250-millilitre bottle of liquor and 0.34 gram of marijuana. They recommended a number of charges that eventually saw prosecutors offer Holness a deal: take the charge for marijuana, do one day in jail, and authorities would forget about the rest.
“I pled guilty,” Holness said. “I wish I never did.”
Holness argued that the true penalty he paid was not the one night he spent imprisoned. “It was that charge,” he said, explaining that the record of the crime has hurt him over and over again.
In 2006, for example, he was denied security clearance for a construction job at Vancouver International Airport. He’s afraid of U.S. customs officials and has missed business trips that would have advanced his career. More recently, the drug charge complicated an insurance plan tied to his mortgage. On job applications, Holness is asked if he’s bondable or has ever been convicted of an offence.
“I’ve had to check those boxes and there have been jobs that I didn’t get because of that,” he said.
For this series, the Georgia Straight interviewed a half-dozen British Columbians caught with marijuana by police.
In September 2012, RCMP officers were looking for a stolen boat along the Fraser River when they stumbled on Matt Roan. He admitted that he and a friend were there smoking pot. Neither was arrested but both learned later that their names were listed in police databases alongside a drug offence.
In May 2013, Ucluelet resident Adam Rodgers woke up to find his home surrounded by officers with guns drawn. His five young children still have nightmares, Rodgers told the Straight. “Over three plants.”
In February 2015, Sarah Bowman purchased cannabis with a prescription at a Vancouver dispensary. On her way home to New Westminster, RCMP caught her smoking on the street. Like Roan’s, her transgression was recorded in the RCMP’s computer system but she was released without charge. “Shaking and terrified,” Bowman added.
Holness was caught with one-third of a gram of marijuana in 1994. He emphasized that police 20 years later are still handcuffing Canadians for crimes related to cannabis, and he warned that those people could be living with the consequences two decades from today. Holness suggested the laws that criminalize marijuana inflict far more harm than the drug itself.
That’s despite two out of three leading parties in this October’s federal election having pledged to reform marijuana laws as soon as they take office. At an August 20 campaign stop in Vancouver, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair told the Straight he would decriminalize pot “the minute we form government”. A few months earlier and also in Vancouver, Justin Trudeau promised a Liberal government would legalize recreational marijuana “right away”.
For victims of prohibition like Jodie Emery—whose husband, Marc, spent almost five years in a U.S. prison for selling marijuana seeds—it raises a question: if by this time next year marijuana possession is no longer a crime, why are law-enforcement agencies still busting people, with repercussions that last a lifetime?
From 2003 to 2012, the B.C. Ministry of Justice recorded charging 44,522 people under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for crimes related to cannabis. (The Straight is waiting on freedom of information requests for more recent data.) But B.C.’s prisons are not overcrowded with inmates serving time for petty marijuana offences.
According to the ministry, during the first six months of 2015, only 327 people spent time inside a B.C. Corrections institution solely for a drug crime. An additional 1,069 British Columbians were convicted of a drug offence but handed probation or released on a conditional sentence.
However, groups such as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have warned that the digitization of information means that even a congenial encounter with police can result in devastating consequences. And there continue to be a lot of marijuana seizures that fall into that category.
As few as seven percent of B.C. marijuana violations result in charges, according to a 2011 analysis published by the University of the Fraser Valley. But according to Justice Ministry numbers, from 2003 to 2012 B.C. police recorded 173,157 offences related to cannabis, every one of which remains in police databases today.
All of these numbers have grown since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government assumed power in 2006. If a Liberal or NDP administration is elected this October, they should decline significantly but to varying degrees, depending on who takes office and how reforms are implemented.
Dan Werb is director of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and the lead author of an August 2015 report that summarized existing research related to marijuana use and the consequences of proposed regulations.
“There is no evidence that our current system is doing anything but making life more miserable for people who use cannabis,” he said in a telephone interview.
Werb told the Straight the NDP’s plan to decriminalize and the Liberals’ plan to legalize are different from one another to a much greater degree than most people understand. (Exactly how the two policies differ will be explored in depth in subsequent articles in this series.)
He explained that although both decriminalization and legalization involve significant reforms on the demand side—repealing laws that prohibit the drug’s possession, for
example—it is only legalization that also brings changes on the supply side.
“When we think about decriminalization, I actually find it to be really problematic,” Werb said. “What decriminalization does not entail is effectively changing the structure by which cannabis is produced or sold.”
In June 2015, the City of Vancouver responded to a proliferation of marijuana storefronts by adopting a legal framework and regulations that Mayor Gregor Robertson has said will bring order to an illegal industry that the federal Conservative government has ignored. The Liberals’ Hedy Fry and the NDP’s Constance Barnes have had a front-row seat to this experiment. In this October’s federal election, they are the top contenders for Vancouver Centre, a riding that is home to more cannabis dispensaries than any other in the country.
In separate interviews, Fry described the current situation as closer to decriminalization. She criticized it for that reason and argued that what is needed is a higher degree of regulation, which she said Trudeau’s plan for legalization will provide. Meanwhile, Barnes argued that what has happened in Vancouver is “legalization without a plan”. She said that is what the Liberals are now threatening to apply to the entire country.
“The use of cannabis is not going away,” Barnes said. “But I do not support going forward with any kind of legalization until we have a plan in place. And at this point right now,
I do not see any plan. It is putting the cart before the horse.”
Fry maintained that legalization will address people’s common complaints about Vancouver dispensaries.
“Decriminalization has been going on and it hasn’t really worked,” she said. “By legalizing it, we can control the substance.”
Holness said he’s waiting for that day. “I’ve never felt any animosity towards police,” he noted. It is the politicians, he said, he holds responsible.
This article is part of a series.
Part one: Liberals and NDP promise marijuana reform but pot crimes could still haunt Canadians for decades
Part two: Decriminalization versus legalization: marijuana advocates scrutinize competing plans for reform
Part three: Marijuana advocates warn NDP plans for decriminalization would leave organized crime in control