Saskatchewan city police are more likely to lay charges for possession of marijuana than many Canadian municipalities, and Saskatoon leads the list.
In 2014, Saskatoon police charged 77 per cent of the people they stopped on suspicion of possession, while Regina police charged 48 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. The national average was 39 per cent.
“Officers are instructed that whenever possible, they’re to lay the charge of possession,” Saskatoon police inspector Dave Haye said. “It’s like every other crime. When you see it you have to deal with it.”
Saskatoon also had the fourth highest rate of possession charges last year at 112.69 per 100,000 people, behind Kelowna B.C., Gatineau and Sherbrooke, Que.
Regina had a 82.81 per 100,000 rate while the national average was 79.27.
Regina’s inspector in charge of criminal investigations, Darcy Koch said their city enforces all drug laws equally.
“I think the public expects us to enforce the laws that are out there, and this is one law that’s out there. So possession of marijuana is illegal and we’re going to enforce that with vigor and energy and try to eliminate it,” Koch said.
Haye and Koch said officers do have some discretion and may not always lay charges. For example, first-time youth offenders may be directed to counseling and drug education and deterrence classes instead.
“Sometimes information and counseling will go a lot further than straight enforcement and judicial proceeding,” Koch said.
Neither said marijuana was particularly high or low on their enforcement priority list.
Haye said most charges are laid by patrol officers who encounter marijuana directly or through another investigation. Last year Saskatoon officers laid 390 possession charges, compared to 505 in 2013, which Haye said is part of a downward trend. So far this year Saskatoon police have laid 283 possession charges, which Haye says could rise to 500 by the end of the year.
Haye said a difference in enforcement rates across the country is “typical.”
“It could be anything from the way the statistics are reported or the investigative philosophies of the agencies involved,” he said.
Saskatchewan Compassion Club owner Mark Hauk said he has witnessed philosophies change, even in Saskatoon. He said when he first talked of opening his medicinal marijuana dispensary, police said he wouldn’t get to sell one bud before he’d be in cuffs.
“There was inspector (Jerome) Engele with an iron fist saying ‘not a chance, not in this city. If you open it, you will be charged immediately.’ But here we are six weeks later,” Hauk said. “We have more city councilors, more mayors and police chiefs stepping out saying ‘You know what? This federal program is craziness. We’re going to allow these dispensaries to be allowed until they get it figured out.'”
In 2013, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a resolution recommending the federal government decriminalize simple possession of marijuana — 30 grams or less — and allow police to issue tickets instead.
The Conservative government continues to assert that if re-elected, it would up-hold Canada’s current laws where medicinal marijuana is the only legal form of possession.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has repeatedly advocated for decriminalization only, while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says he would seek to legalize, regulate and tax pot.