Marijuana charges are on the rise in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec, while in the rest of Canada cannabis-related charges are declining ahead of Ottawa's plans to legalize the drug.

The number of cannabis-related charges has ebbed countrywide from last year, continuing a downward trend since a peak in 2011.

For Canadians older than 12, 17,700 were charged with possession last year, according to police-reported statistics released by Statistics Canada. This is down from 21,300 in 2015.

cannabis charges stats canada

More serious charges of trafficking were also down, while production and importation charges remained flat but relatively low.

This trend was observed across most provinces, and in many of them, the rate of charges is the lowest on record.

But Montreal and other Quebec cities have been bucking the trend. Charges for possession have been slowly going up since 1998, and are virtually unchanged from 2015.

Quebec apprehensive of legalization

Eric Sutton, a criminal defence lawyer in Montreal, said the disparity surprised him, but he has noticed concerns of the medical community and other lobby groups being aired in Quebec media more than elsewhere in the country.

"In Quebec, there has been a fairly hot debate, and that may have had an effect on policing and the attitude of prosecutors," Sutton said. "Legalizing something doesn't mean it's good. It's a legal decision, not a moral decision."

Sutton said prosecutors usually take into account whether someone has a prior criminal record, as well as other factors that could determine whether charges are pursued or not. 

He said the push to legalize "reflects an understanding that so many people use marijuana and, like it or not, it's probably here to stay."

In 2016, an average of 73 Montrealers per 100,000 people charged for cannabis possession, and 76 in Quebec as a whole, while the Canadian rate was 56 per 100,000 people.

One of the most dramatic decreases was in Alberta.

weed charges stats canada

Because the population in the territories is so low, the rates tend to skew higher. Here they are, in separate charts with a different scale. All have seen lower numbers.

cannabis-related offences canada territories

The picture is more varied in metropolitan areas. While most police forces seem to be reducing pot-related enforcement that leads to charges, some forces are more ambitious than others.

Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Windsor, Ont., and Barrie, Ont., have seen the biggest drops in possession charges from 2015.

Police in Canada reallocating resources

In other police districts, the abating of charges may be a question of resources and capacity, according to the president of the Canadian Police Association, Tom Stamatakis.

He said police forces haven't targeted simple possession "for years now."

"The focus is on high-level trafficking, organized crime, and other related activities that are more serious and have a bigger impact on the community," Stamatakis said.

"I would anticipate that police forces are redirecting priorities on the basis that marijuana will become legal in the near future."

It's unclear whether Montreal police are doing that or not. 

"There's a much bigger market here, there's much more activity, more grow-ops, just as a percentage of criminality," said Montreal Coun. Alex Norris, speculating on what could cause the discrepancy, which he said was interesting. 

Norris is part of Montreal's public safety commission and said he planned to ask police Chief Philippe Pichet or senior staff on the force about it at the commission's next meeting.

'A disappointing trend' in Quebec

Marc-Boris St-Maurice, a longtime advocate of legalization and the head of the Montreal Compassion Centre, said it's a disappointing trend.

"It would be nice if there could be a bit more tolerance towards people who are using marijuana, given that legalization is just around the corner," St-Maurice said.

He said provincial leadership "is a lot more afraid of marijuana in Quebec.… We think we're all so open, but I guess these numbers here show that it's not always the case."

Historically, Quebec police appear to have been more tolerant of cannabis possession than other provinces. In 1998, there was an average of 53 people charged with possession per 100,000 in the province. Canada's rate at the time was 76. 

The rate in Quebec has risen ever since, following the Canadian trend, but still registering lower every year until now.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Windsor, Ont., and Barrie, Ont., have changed the least from 2015 in the number of charges. In fact, those cities have seen the biggest drops in possession charges from 2015.
    Jul 25, 2017 10:29 AM ET