The rate of police-reported cannabis crimes in Canada continued a years-long decline in 2018, according to new crime data released this week by Statistics Canada, but police still counted almost 1,500 new Cannabis Act offences following legalization in the final months of the year.
Between 2017 and 2018, the government statistics bureau tracked a 29 per cent decrease in the combined rate of a group of police-reported cannabis offences that includes cannabis possession, trafficking, production, distribution, sale and illegal importing or exporting.
Breaking those offences down by type, police-reported rates of cannabis possession under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) declined 33 per cent from 2017 to 2018. Rates of police-reported cannabis trafficking offences under the CDSA were down 44 per cent annually, and cannabis production offences declined by 35 per cent.
CDSA offences for illegal importation or exportation of cannabis, however, increased 22 per cent on an annual basis.
Of course, measuring cannabis crimes in 2018 was complicated by a major legislative change, as old CDSA cannabis offences were replaced by new offences when the federal Cannabis Act took effect on October 17. (For example, the Cannabis Act only outlaws the possession of cannabis under certain circumstances, like possessing illicit cannabis, possessing more than 30 grams of cannabis in public, or possession of cannabis by an organization.)
But even after pro-rating the 2018 police-reported CDSA offences from the pre-legalization period, and comparing that to pro-rated figures for 2017 CDSA cannabis offences, Statistics Canada still found that 2018 rates of police-reported CDSA cannabis offences declined 14 per cent from 2017.
Cannabis offences like those had already been on the decline for six straight years, Statistics Canada noted.Advertisement
After the Cannabis Act took effect in October 2018, Statistics Canada tracked 1,454 police-reported cannabis offences under the new law for the remaining two-and-a-half months of the year.
Thirty-one per cent of those Cannabis Act offences were related to possession, 21 per cent were related to illegally importing or exporting cannabis, and 16 per cent were related to illegal cannabis sales.
The 1,454 police-reported Cannabis Act offences in the final months of 2018 only "accounted for 4 per cent of all cannabis-related drug offences despite the (Cannabis) Act being in effect for approximately 20 per cent of the 2018 calendar year," said Statistics Canada in its report.
"My take is slightly different, which is, that's a lot of incidents," said Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University.
"Most police officers, certainly police leadership… (are) not that interested in cannabis charges, not that interested in pursuing this." -Neil Boyd
But Boyd stressed that the 1,454 police-reported Cannabis Act offences in 2018 are just that — offences measured by police — and don't reflect the number of criminal charges actually laid or how those charges, if any, were resolved.
"I would be extremely surprised if we were to see the same percentage, or same number of cannabis-related drug offences post-legalization," Boyd said.
"Most police officers, certainly police leadership… (are) not that interested in cannabis charges, not that interested in pursuing this."
The new police-reported cannabis offence data elicited a similar reaction from Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University Toronto, who said the data don't reflect what criminologists refer to as the "dark figure of crime," the proportion of crime that escapes notice by authorities.
"As different police agencies have recognized that enforcing low-level cannabis offences in particular is not a good use of resources, they focus less of their efforts there and we see a decline in those arrests, and ultimately the charges." -Akwasi Owusu-Bempah
Police-reported crime data directly reflects police enforcement priorities, Owusu-Bempah said.
"And so, as we've had legalization in the works for some time, and as different police agencies have recognized that enforcing low-level cannabis offences in particular is not a good use of resources, they focus less of their efforts there and we see a decline in those arrests, and ultimately the charges."
Citing the recent high-profile case of an illegal cannabis dispensary in Toronto, Owusu-Bempah said about half of cannabis users in Canada are still buying from the illicit market.
"Certainly in some pockets of the city, the actual number of cannabis offences may have increased drastically, because we have these unlicensed dispensaries that are selling cannabis to consumers illegally," he said.