Pot smokers in Gatineau more likely to be busted than just about any other city in Canada
Pot smokers in Gatineau are more likely to be charged for possession of marijuana than in virtually any other major city in the country.
Only Sherbrooke, Que., had a slightly higher rate of pot possession charges last year, according to data collected by Postmedia as part of a project examining Canada’s move to legalize recreational marijuana.
The federal government has promised to introduce legislation in the spring. In the meantime, pot laws remain in force, although how they are applied varies dramatically across the country.
In Gatineau, the rate of marijuana possession charges was 153.42 for every 100,000 people in 2015. Gatineau was in second place after Sherbrooke, which had a rate of 153.71. Saskatoon and Kelowna came in third and fourth place, respectively, in the comparison of 33 major Canadian cities.
Once the search is widened to include smaller towns and cities in Canada, however, Gatineau doesn’t even make the top 20. The highest rate last year among the 1,132 municipalities analyzed by Postmedia was Waskesiu, in northern Saskatchewan lake country at Prince Albert National Park. The area had a whopping possession charge rate of 1,903.81. That sounds high, but since the population is tiny, it only represents charges against 19 people, a member of the town council told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
The ski towns of Lake Louise and Jasper, Alta., where RCMP ski patrol teams help keep pot smokers off the slopes, came second and third. They had dominated the category until last year.
The major city in which pot smokers were least likely to be charged with possession last year? Kingston, which had a rate of 13.55 charges for every 100,000 people. Ottawa ranked in the middle, with a possession charge rate of 47.42.
Why Gatineau rates so high in pot-possession charges among large cities is unclear. Are there more cannabis lovers in that municipality, or are police more likely to be on the prowl looking for them? The data indicates that police in Gatineau instigate a relatively high number of investigations for marijuana possession. In 2015, for instance, there were 220.36 investigations of marijuana possession in Gatineau for every 100,000 people. That was the second highest of all major cities in Canada, after Kelowna at 290.27. Vancouver came third with a rate of 220.16.
But, as is common across Canada, many people investigated for possession of pot do not end up going to court. Many are simply let go with a warning.
The federal government has said one of its major reasons for legalizing marijuana is to stop the flood of people convicted of possessing small amounts from ending up with criminal records. However, the government has also rejected calls to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana while Canadians wait for it to become legal.
In both Ottawa and Gatineau, people caught with marijuana face pretty even odds of whether they will have to make a trip to the courthouse.
In Ottawa, for instance, while police investigated 85.39 incidents per 100,000 involving marijuana possession last year, the rate of charges for marijuana possession was only 47.42.
Police have wide discretion. In Ottawa, police do not usually charge people who have no criminal record for simple possession of marijuana unless there are extenuating circumstances, said Insp. Michael Laviolette. “The community doesn’t want that from us.
“If a guy is walking down Elgin Street smoking a joint, we’re not going to be taking him down and arresting him. We may intervene, and we may take it from him and destroy it, but we’re not giving some kid a criminal record for smoking a joint. That’s why we’re having all these discussions (about legalization) in the first place.
“If they were arrested for something else, if there is violence involved, if the person has a criminal record and is breaching (bail) conditions, we may consider adding on that extra charge of possession.”
And even among those who are charged, some are diverted from the justice system and ordered to do community service or make a contribution to charity.
More than 27,000 people were charged with cannabis-related crimes in Canada last year. That’s down slightly from 2014.
Pot possession charge rates: The top five large cities
153.71: Sherbooke, Que.
95.02: Kelowna, B.C.
83.84: Barrie, Ont.
*Statistics Canada data on 33 large Canadian cities for 2015 represents the charge rate per 100,000 population aged 12 and over