Police are laying fewer charges for possession of marijuana in a trend that accelerated in Alberta last year, particularly in Calgary.
Alberta saw a 25 per cent drop in the rate of criminal marijuana possession in 2016 from the previous year, led in part by significant declines in Calgary for the fifth consecutive year.
The downward trend began before the Liberals brought forward their plan to legalize the drug for recreational use, and those on the front lines of the judicial system say charges for simple possession are increasingly rare.
“It has been quite a while since I’ve had anybody retain me for a simple possession of marijuana charge,” said defence lawyer Dale Fedorchuk.
“Police are only laying charges if there is a significant amount of marijuana, and, more likely, only if it is possession for the purpose of trafficking.”
The annual tally of police-reported crime from Statistics Canada released Monday suggested there were about 4,405 actual offences related to simple marijuana possession in Alberta in 2016, about 1,349 fewer than the year before.
Calgary saw a 20 per cent decrease in the rate of cannabis possession offences in 2016 over the previous year.
The city has seen the number of actual pot possession incidents reported by police decline by more than half since 2012.
There has been a decrease in police willingness and interest in pursuing charges for simple possession since 2010, said Doug King, a criminologist at Mount Royal University.
“A police officer has a tremendous amount of discretion as to what charge to pursue when they encounter suspected criminal activity,” said King.
“I think this is one of those things where police officers are saying to themselves ‘this isn’t really a priority of ours.'”
He said changing social attitudes and backlogged court systems may be a factor and that Crown prosecutors, probably indirectly or informally, are sending messages to police officers across Canada saying not to charge because of the upcoming legalization.
The federal government plans to legalize marijuana as early as next summer.
If an officer charges someone with possession, it might not go to court until after the law changes.
“I think that the police are now taking a look at that and saying, ‘well, it’s going to be legal soon anyway. If we charge somebody today and their trial is 18 months from now, by the time it gets to trial it may be legal, so why bother?'” Fedorchuk said.
The declines in Alberta echo trends in other jurisdictions. Statistics Canada said police across the country charged 17,733 people with possession of pot last year. That is a drop of about 3,600 from 2015.
King said it might also represent how individual officers are feeling on the street.
He said police agencies are not growing at the same rate as the population and officers might see a simple possession charge as too much paperwork and wasted time and energy.
— With files from The Canadian Press