Late one evening last February, Sarah Bowman was on her way home when she was approached by two RCMP officers at the Edmonds SkyTrain Station in Burnaby.
She had just smoked a joint, Bowman recounted in a telephone interview, but she didn’t think she was in real trouble. Bowman explained that she had a doctor’s prescription for the drug and had obtained it with that document at a medicinal-marijuana dispensary in Vancouver.
“I saw police officers making the rounds, so I threw my joint away,” she said. “They walked straight up to me, a gentleman showed me his badge, grabbed my hands, and handcuffed me without me even responding.”
Bowman sat on the ground as officers searched her bags. They didn’t find any marijuana and eventually located both Bowman’s prescription for cannabis and her dispensary membership card. But the RCMP officers dismissed those documents as irrelevant.
They argued that under existing laws, medicinal marijuana must be obtained via mail order from a certified Health Canada supplier. That is accurate (with exceptions) and remains true today.
On November 13, Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter that stated the Ministry of Justice should “create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana”. But Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (MP for Vancouver Granville) has yet to act on that directive.
Both the Justice Ministry and the RCMP refused to grant interviews. Cpl. Janelle Shoihet, a spokesperson for the B.C. RCMP, did however confirm officers are still enforcing cannabis laws including those that prohibit possession.
Dana Larsen is vice president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries. He told the Straight that although the country remains in a period of transition on marijuana, municipal jurisdictions are policing cannabis as they see fit. Larsen suggested that situation has turned an urban region like Metro Vancouver into an unpredictable patchwork where some jurisdictions zealously enforce drug laws while others turn a blind eye to petty crimes like possession.
“In B.C., it totally depends on the mayor and the mayor and city council,” he said.
Bowman was travelling from Vancouver to New Westminster but stopped in Burnaby to visit her boyfriend. The Vancouver Police Department has long maintained it does not consider marijuana possession an enforcement priority. Meanwhile, in 2014, the New Westminster Police Department recorded a seven-year low for drug offences (going as far back as data is publicly available). But Burnaby is policed by the RCMP.
“They left me shaking uncontrollably and terrified,” said Bowman, who was eventually released without charges. “I used to think that police officers were there to help. Now, I’m paranoid. I’m afraid of police.”
Murray Rankin, opposition critic for justice and NDP MP for Victoria, told the Straight that stories such as Bowman’s should serve as a warning. He said cities like Vancouver and New Westminster may not consider it a priority to go after someone with a joint but anecdotal evidence suggests the situation is different in jurisdictions covered by the RCMP.
“It’s quite a varied landscape out there,” he said. “We want a coherent position across the country.”
Rankin added that the situation on Vancouver Island is similar to that of Metro Vancouver. The City of Victoria (which has its own municipal police force) has tacitly accepted marijuana storefronts and is drafting regulations comparable to those Vancouver adopted last June. Meanwhile, Rankin continued, in Nanaimo (where the RCMP patrols the streets), marijuana is still getting people into trouble with law enforcement.
Barely an hour after Rankin’s call with the Straight, the RCMP issued a news release stating they had executed search warrants at three marijuana dispensaries in Nanaimo.
Rankin acknowledged that legalizing marijuana—that is, creating a framework for sales similar to rules that cover tobacco—will be complicated and take time. But he argued it would not be hard for the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis. Rankin noted the Liberals have discussed this as a likely first step, and he wondered when that will happen.
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 B.C. Justice Ministry numbers, from 2003 to 2012, police across the province recorded 173,157 offences related to cannabis.
Larsen emphasized that even without a charge, an apprehension such as the encounter with RCMP Bowman experienced is usually entered into a police database, where it can remain for years and create problems for someone when the apply for a job or travel to the United States.
Like Rankin, Larsen said he accepts that full legalization will likely be a long process. “But there is no reason to continue arresting people for possession,” he said. “Especially when those charges are likely going to be dropped in a few months anyways. What’s the point?”