Over the last several years, the number of medicinal marijuana dispensaries operating in Vancouver has ballooned, from fewer than 20 in 2012 to more than 100 today.
That might have people wondering how police enforcement of marijuana laws has changed during that time, especially since the City of Vancouver lent a great deal of legitimacy to dispensaries when it proposed a legal framework for marijuana sales last April.
As the VPD turned a blind eye to over-the-counter marijuana sales, one might expect the department’s overall numbers for cannabis offences experienced a sharp decline.
But it turns out VPD enforcement numbers have barely changed at all.
During the first six months of 2015, the VPD registered 473 cannabis offences. Multiply that number by two and one can very roughly project 946 for the year.
That compares to 1,048 marijuana offences in 2013 and 864 in 2012.
This means the VPD is on track to record a very average number of marijuana offences this year, despite the proliferation of dispensaries likely giving many people the perception Vancouver police tactics have shifted.
(Numbers for 2015 were obtained via a freedom of information request. The Straight requested statistics for 2014, but the VPD withheld that data citing a section of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act that allows a public body to refuse disclosure of information previously scheduled for release within 60 days.)
In a telephone interview, the Straight asked Sgt. Const. Brian Montague why it looks like the VPD is continuing to bust people for marijuana while letting dispensaries go about their business.
“The numbers might seem a little misleading until you explain the fact these aren’t arrests, they are not charges; they are criminal offences,” he said. “In the vast majority of cases where we come across cannabis, there isn’t a charge for cannabis recommended.”
When an officer does catch somebody smoking a joint, Montague said the most likely outcome would be for them to destroy the drugs but otherwise let that citizen go about their day. The encounter still goes into a police database as a marijuana offence (along with the offender’s name and related information) but that’s usually where the matter ends.
Montague explained what statistics for 2015 and recent years actually show is that the VPD changed its enforcement strategies on marijuana long before the dispensaries started showing up at the rate they are today.
“We ask, is a recommendation of criminal charges proportionate to the offence that is being committed?” he continued. “And a lot of times, the answer to that is no.”
On September 17, the Vancouver police board formally received a complaint regarding the department’s alleged failure to enforce drug laws against storefronts selling marijuana.
Ahead of that meeting, the VPD prepared a written response to those allegations.
“In the case of dispensaries, the VPD must consider evolving community standards,” it reads. “The City’s decision to create a regulatory framework rather than using its bylaws to shut down dispensaries; the prioritization of police resources when weighed against other more serious drug offences occurring in Vancouver, and the costs and benefits of taking enforcement action against marihuana dispensaries. As a result, the Chief Constable has decided that such actions will only be taken when there are overt public safety concerns present.”
It’s noted there that since 2013, the VPD has executed 11 search warrants against dispensaries when complaints against those locations were filed and found to have merit.
The police board dismissed the September 17 complaint.
After reviewing the data for 2015, Kirk Tousaw, a B.C. lawyer who specializes in drug law, similarly said it’s his experience that in Vancouver, very few of those offences proceed to see people charged with a crime.
“It is a maintenance of the status quo,” he said. “Enforcement of simple [marijuana] possession does not appear to be a high priority.”