While Canada waits for legalization, marijuana activists call for moratorium on arrests

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      The federal Liberals' plan to legalize recreational marijuana is officially underway. Canada’s new minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould (MP for Vancouver Granville) received instructions to make it happen last November. And on January 8, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to head those efforts.

      But Trudeau has said the process should begin with consultation with the provinces. And so it will likely be several years before legal cannabis is a reality.

      In the meantime, one of Canada’s leading activists for marijuana reform is calling for the government to immediately place a moratorium on arrests related to the possession of cannabis.

      “As the government moves to legalizing marijuana, it is unjust to continue arresting people,” Jodie Emery said in a telephone interview.

      She told the Straight she has requested a meeting with her member of Parliament, Hedy Fry, which has been scheduled for February 11. Emery said she has also sent a letter to the MP for Vancouver Centre.

      “I urge you to call upon our Honourable Prime Minister and Honourable Justice Minister to issue an immediate moratorium on marijuana arrests while the federal government works on legalizing marijuana,” it reads.

      Fry’s office referred a request for an interview to the federal Ministry of Justice. That office did not respond by deadline.

      John Conroy is an Abbotsford-based lawyer who specializes in marijuana law. He told the Straight there are two actions Ottawa could take to minimize the number of people arrested for marijuana.

      The first, Conroy said, would be for the prime minister or the minister of justice to simply instruct the RCMP and municipal police forces across the country to “deprioritize” cannabis. Conroy explained that this is, essentially, how the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has dealt with the issue for years now.

      “The minister of justice or the government could say: ‘Listen, we have indicated that we are going to legalize and so we are advising you not to enforce certain provisions of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act pending new legislation,’ ” Conroy explained.

      The second route, he continued, would be for the federal government to amend that act to remove cannabis from its Schedule Two category of illicit substances.

      Conroy added that although the first option is simpler, the second is preferred because it would prevent "keener" officers from applying cannabis laws despite instructions from Ottawa that police should stop.

      “Why penalize people and drag them through the system and cost the taxpayers money and take up police resources?” he asked.

      According to VPD statistics obtained via a freedom of information request, during the first six months of 2015, the force recorded 473 cannabis offences. For the whole of 2014, that number was 991, down from 1,057 in 2013.

      Those numbers are likely much higher in other areas and can differ greatly from one jurisdiction to the next.

      According to Statistics Canada data, in 2014, the rate of marijuana possession charges in Metro Vancouver was 48.47 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, in Calgary, it was 36.82; in Toronto, it was 67.44; in Saskatoon, it was 112.69; and in Kamloops, it was 250.51 (the highest of anywhere in Canada).

      On the campaign trail in August 2015, the Straight asked Trudeau if a Liberal government would include releasing people from prison as part of its plans for marijuana reform.

      “That’s something that we’ll be looking into as we move forward,” he said in response. “There has been many situations over history when laws come in that overturn previous convictions and there will be a process for that that we will set up in a responsible way.”

      Emery said it's time Ottawa move on that plan.

      “What if Mr. Trudeau was arrested for pot possession?" she asked. "He has admitted to possessing marijuana, he has admitted to breaking the law. So it is hypocritical for Trudeau to allow others to be arrested for pot when he himself has broken the very same law."

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