Pot possession charges increase 154 per cent in Hamilton since 2006

Hamilton's rate of charging people with pot possession is well above the national average and the number of charges has risen significantly. Why is pot enforcement such a priority when social attitudes about it are increasingly relaxed?

Hamilton's enforcement is one of the strictest in the country

Hamilton is the fifth highest city in Canada for the number of marijuana-related incidents per capita. (CBC)

New numbers show that Hamilton is a city concerned with the mighty green — not money, that is, but pot.

A CBC analysis of recently released cannabis possession data reveals that Steeltown ranks among the top major cities in the country for possession-related enforcement.

Statistics Canada data show the Hamilton census area (which includes Burlington and Grimsby) ranks eighth highest out of 34 cities in per capita pot-possession charges in the country. And the numbers have increased substantially in the past nine years. Pot possession charges per 100,000 residents have increased by 114 per cent since 2006. 

Citizens have made it clear they do not want illegal drugs in their neighbourhoods.- acting Det. Sgt. Craig  Leishman , Hamilton Police

Looking at just Hamilton (excluding Burlington and Grimsby), the possession enforcement rates are even higher. The national average for charges per 100,000 incidents is 79.27. In the Hamilton CMA, it's 92.41, in the city of Hamilton alone, it is 102.2.

Comparing 2006 to 2014, the number of marijuana-related incidents investigated by Hamilton police increased 185 per cent and the number of charges increased by 154 per cent. By comparison, the national increase for incidents and charges over that period is about 30 per cent.

While enforcement has gone up across the country since Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power and announced a tougher approach to drug possession, the likelihood of being charged varies significantly across the country. Critics question the value of so much enforcement and resources going toward pot possession and why the usage should be criminalized. 
(CBC News Graphics)

Why are Hamilton police so tough on pot possession? The service itself cites the ACTION strategy, which Chief Glenn De Caire implemented in 2010, as a reason for the increases.

The high-profile ACTION team, which patrols areas such as Hamilton's downtown on foot and bicycle, has made more than 4,900 arrests and seized more than $650,000 worth of illegal drugs in the past five years, spokesperson Catherine Martin said in an email.

As for whether there's been an increased focus on marijuana, Martin said that police have "maintained their focus on education and enforcement as it relates to illegal drugs."

People are also sharing information that leads to arrests, said acting Det. Sgt. Craig Leishman from the vice and drug unit.

Citizens have made it clear they do not want illegal drugs in their neighbourhoods and they are connecting with our vice and drug unit, front-line police officers and Crime Stoppers to share information," he said.

I need to understand why our numbers are higher than some of these other jurisdictions.- Coun . Terry Whitehead

But Terry Whitehead, a Ward 8 city councillor, and member of the police services board, said the numbers raise some questions. He wonders if marijuana is more prevalent in Hamilton, or if Hamilton is making it a higher priority.

Whitehead said speaking personally, "I need to understand why our numbers are higher than some of these other jurisdictions."

Marijuana possession by the numbers for the Hamilton (municipality only):

  • Number of marijuana-related incidents investigated in 2006: 354
  • Number investigated in 2014: 1,011
  • Percentage increase in marijuana-related incidents 2006-2014: 185.6
  • Incidents per 100,000 people in 2006: 67.61
  • Incidents per 100,000 in 2014: 183.23
  • Percentage of incidents that lead to a charge in 2014: 45 
  • Number of incidents cleared by charge in 2006: 179
  • Number of incidents cleared by charge in 2014: 455
  • Percentage increase in charges 2006-2014: 154.2
  • National average for charges per 100,000 residents aged 12+: 79.27
  • Hamilton charges per 100,000 population in 2014: 102

Overall, national numbers show that police deal with a marijuana possession incident every nine minutes.
(CBC News Graphics)

Kelowna tops the list of 34 Canadian cities with 251 charges per 100,000 people aged 12+. The lowest was St. John's,

It almost seems like a make-work project for everyone involved.- Daniel Brown, Toronto criminal defense lawyer

Newfoundland with only 11 charges per 100,000.

Daniel Brown, a Toronto-based defense attorney, said the increases come at a time when people have an increasingly relaxed approach to marijuana.

"Changes in legislation now make it easier for people to possess marijuana," he said. "It's easier today than ever before to get a prescription to possess marijuana. It just seems to be any criminal justice policy that cracks down on it."

Minor marijuana possession charges are typically thrown out of court, he said.

"It almost seems like a make-work project for everyone involved," he said. "Police are busy processing these arrests but they're not meaningful in any way because they don't seem to go anywhere once they're in the court system."

Brown suggests deregulating marijuana and treating it the same as alcohol and tobacco. Cole Raftery, a Hamilton defense attorney who has dealt with marijuana-related cases would like to see it decriminalized.

"It should be kept away from youth," Raftery said. "It should be regulated. But people should not be getting criminal records and losing jobs and not allowed to cross borders (over it)."