Montreal

Sherbrooke, Que., double national average for pot possession charges

The City of Sherbrooke ranked third nationally for the highest number of marijuana possession charges on a per-capita basis.

Police enforcing marijuana possession with arrests, not using discretionary power for minors

In Sherbrooke, Que. in 2014, police laid charges for marijuana possession at the rate of 162 people per 100,000 population - well above the Canadian average of 79. (CBC)

José Dominguez's first reflex when approached by police about the marijuana in his car was to pull out his medical marijuana prescription, but that didn't stop Sherbrooke police from arresting, and later charging, the Sherbrooke resident.

His charges would later be dropped, but Dominguez estimates the judicial process cost him as much as $5,000 in total.

"Even if I was not convicted, your insurance calls you — your insurance for the house, for your car, everyone calls you because they don't want to insure people who have a criminal case," he said.

Police in Canada deal with a marijuana possession incident every nine minutes, but police forces across the country vary in how they enforce marijuana possession incidents.

Sherbrooke has the third highest rate per capita of marijuana charges. It's beaten only by Gatineau, Que. and Kelowna, B.C.

For every 100,000 people in Sherbrooke, there were 162 charges. That's more than double the national average of 79 charges per 100,000 people.

Since Stephen Harper came into power in 2006 with a "tough on crime" agenda, arrests and charges for marijuana possession have risen 30 per cent across the country.

Possession always leads to arrest

A spokesman for the Sherbrooke municipal police says there is an effort to curb drug use in Sherbrooke.

Tony Brien, criminologist with the force, says in recent years, investigators have been hired on a full-time basis to work specifically with the drug unit.

As well, there's a program that puts police in schools, which has a zero-tolerance approach to drug possession.

And Brien says the existence of rehab centres inside the force's jurisdiction skew numbers, as a higher-than-average number of arrests are made inside the centres.

But he says Sherbrooke ranks high nationally because, until recently, police weren't using discretionary powers when youth were found with marijuana.

"Compared to other police services, our numbers are higher because our police haven't used another option. Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act gives police discretionary power for certain minor infractions, and in past years, our police haven't used that power," he said.

Although he didn't have an exact figure, Brien estimates a large percentage of arrests made for marijuana possession are minors.

Police misusing resources, says marijuana advocate

Dominguez counts on two hands when describing how many of his friends have been arrested for possession of marijuana.

He's had a license to grow medicinal marijuana for a decade and has been using it himself since 2009.

 "I don't care if it's illegal. I don't think it's up to the government to tell me what I can consume."- Sherbrooke man convicted of marijuana possession

"I think there are more serious crimes to take care of," he said. "There are obviously way more things than consumption and possession of cannabis."

A friend of his, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, says his car was stopped on a routine check when police told him they smelled marijuana.

When they searched it, they found several grams of pot. They arrested the man, strip searched him, and took him to the hospital where they ran tests to see if he was driving under the influence.

He tested negatively, but was still charged with possession.

Despite that experience, he continues to smoke a joint a few times a week.

"It's not as bad as alcohol," he said. "I don't care if it's illegal. I don't think it's up to the government to tell me what I can consume."

Discussion of legalization 'normalizing' marijuana use, say police

Brien said pop culture attitudes about marijuana do not reflect that the drug is still illegal and could be dangerous.

"All the debate concerning legalization is beginning to desensitise the population and normalize the consumption of cannabis a bit," he said.

He also said that the police force's efforts to curb drug use in Sherbrooke are working, although the number of charges per year has nearly doubled since 2006.

In 2006, there were 87 arrests per 100,000 people. The number climbed steadily - in 2014, there were 162 arrests per 100,000 people.

Bishop's University criminologist Vicki Chartrand is skeptical that more arrests will lead to less drug use.

She says there's no compelling evidence to suggest people – youth particularly – will be deterred from drug use if they see their peers getting embroiled in the judicial system.

Instead, she says, charging minors with crimes could create more problems than it solves.

"It entrenches them further into the criminal justice system rather than getting them out," she said.

About the Author

Kate McKenna is a reporter with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca.

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