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Police bust fewer pot smokers in Winnipeg than in most other Canadian cities

Police in Winnipeg laid charges for possession of marijuana at a lower rate than other Canadian cities in 2014, ranking 28th out of 34 Canadian cities tracked by Statistics Canada.

Winnipeg's 2014 per capita charge rate lower than Canadian average

Police bust fewer pot smokers in Winnipeg than in most other Canadian cities

7 years ago
Duration 2:08
Police deal with a marijuana possession incident every nine minutes in Canada, according to 2014 figures, but a CBC News analysis found that where you live plays a big role in determining whether you would have faced criminal charges.

Police in Winnipeg laid charges for possession of marijuana at a lower rate than most other Canadian cities in 2014, ranking 28th out of 34 Canadian cities tracked by Statistics Canada.

There were 33 people charged per 100,000 population -- well below the Canadian average of 79.

The highest number of charges was in Kelowna, B.C. at 251 per 100,000 and the lowest was in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador with just 11.

"When there isn't a clear and obvious reason for treating people differently for the same crime, that creates a lack of respect for the law, lack of respect for law enforcement," said Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University in BC.

Although the rate of charging for pot possession in Winnipeg was lower than average, the number of incidents reported has increased since 2006, the year the Conservative government was elected.

In Winnipeg in 2014, police laid charges for marijuana possession at the rate of 33 people per 100,000 population -- well below the Canadian average of 79. Source: Statistics Canada. (CBC)
Police reported 322 marijuana possession incidents in 2014, up from 202 in 2006, following a national trend upwards.

"So are police getting tougher?" asked Michael Weinrath, University of Winnipeg criminologist.

"It may be that they just have more time.  Because there's not as many other crimes occurring, right?  So they have more time to arrest people."

Despite the growing number of marijuana possession incidents in Winnipeg, police laid charges at a slightly lower rate: 66 per cent of the time in 2014, compared to 74 per cent of the time in 2006.

Police use discretion

"They still tend to use a fair bit of discretion.  In fact, they seem to be slightly less likely to lay charges than they were previously," said Weinrath. 
University of Winnipeg criminologist Michael Weinrath said police use a fair bit of discretion in deciding whether or not to lay a charge for possession of marijuana. (CBC)

Vancouver police, in contrast, laid charges in just 16 per cent of marijuana possession incidents last year, and in St. John's, only seven per cent of incidents resulted in a charge — the lowest rate in the country.

"Drug statistics are really not an indicator of drug activity.  Drug statistics are an indicator of police activity.  When drug charges go up it just means police are being more active in arresting people," said Weinrath.

The Winnipeg Police Service has not yet provided an interview about its approach.

Marijuana activists like Bill VanderGraaf say no one should be charged for pot possession.

"Prohibition does not work and all we're doing is hurting the people that we're criminalizing," said VanderGraaf.
Bill VanderGraaf, who has a licence to use marijuana for medical purposes, advocates legalizing and regulating the drug. (CBC)

"I also find the laws being enforced across this country are not being enforced equitably by various police departments," said VanderGraaf, a retired Winnipeg police detective who advocates for legalization and regulation of marijuana.

"It most often comes down to the individual officer and an individual officer on the street has the discretion not to proceed or to proceed. Depends on his own point of view. And when we have crimes that rely on the officer's own personal perspective, I say they're not crimes anymore," said VanderGraaf.

"We can deter the use of drugs better in a proper controlled and legalized system than we can by leaving it in the hands of organized crime."

With files from Joanne Levasseur and Jacques Marcoux.

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