How much marijuana is too much? Legalization means new questions for police

Officials are working on new training tools for police as they prepare for legal recreational marijuana.

With legal pot looming, officials are working on training tools for Canada's cops

A man smokes a marijuana joint during the annual 4/20 marijuana celebration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, April 20, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Pop quiz: what does 30 grams of marijuana look like?

It's not an abstract question. Under the federal government's proposed cannabis legalization plan, 30 grams of dried marijuana is the maximum a person can legally possess in a public place. Carry any more and you could be subject to fines, jail time, or both.

Policing quantities is a big shift for police officers, who are used to viewing any amount of pot as a potential red flag, said Sandy Sweet of the Canadian Police Knowledge Network, an agency that provides online training courses for police officers.

"Now it's [going to be] a legal substance. They have to move on. So we have to train every police officer in the country what the law says they're allowed to do and not allowed to do in these new scenarios."

And while there's still plenty of uncertainty swirling about legalization — the exact timing, the possibility that the Senate will try to change the proposed law, the potential impact on the police — behind the scenes, policing experts are trying to figure out how best to get officers ready.

Sweet's group has been working with the RCMP and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to design online training for all of Canada's roughly 69,000 police officers; the plan is to launch the training by July.

The training likely will take officers roughly two hours to complete and will be filled with pictures, videos and interactive material designed to walk them through the federal legislation.​ The training will be available in both French and English.

Officers already are asking a lot of questions about legalization, said Genevieve Tremblay, the RCMP's director of national learning services.

"Our police officers are now wanting to make sure that they're not doing the wrong things as they uncover what's now a legal substance, but are also able to conduct the investigations in a proper manner," said Tremblay.

The RCMP already have held three days of meetings with subject matter experts to help decide what ground needs to be covered in the training.

Regional differences

On top of the federal rules, there will be some significant discrepancies going forward in provincial marijuana laws.

Federal law will allow people to grow up to four cannabis plants per household — but both Quebec and Manitoba intend to ban home cultivation. Ontario will only allow people to consume pot in private residences, and has proposed fines of up to $5,000 for those caught breaking the rules multiple times.

The plan is to include that information in the training where it's available, particularly as it relates to possession and distribution, said Tremblay. But communities may also have to provide some regionally-specific information to their officers.

As with other areas of policing, legalization's impacts will be different in rural communities compared to big cities, said Sweet. They'll also vary across the country.

"The challenges will be different in Waterloo, [Ontario] than in Antigonish, Nova Scotia."

Drug-impaired driving

Officials say training to deal with drugged driving will be dealt with separately. To coincide with legalization, the federal government is preparing to update its impaired driving laws; police will use saliva tests to detect whether drivers have drugs in their system.

Officers will have to be trained on the new equipment, but right now it's still not known which models of oral fluid testing devices law enforcement will use. The Canadian Society of Forensic Science's Drugs and Driving Committee is evaluating the equipment and will make recommendations. The group's chair couldn't say when their work would be done.

"We'll have to wait for a tool to be approved and then we'll be able to move on training," said Mario Harel, chief of Gatineau, Quebec's police force and president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

In the meantime, he said, police forces have been trying to increase the number of officers who have specialized training as Drug Recognition Experts, and to make sure officers know how to conduct the standardized field sobriety test. Both are used now to detect impaired driving.

About that math ...

So what does 30 grams of pot look like? It depends on what form it's in.

The federal government's proposed regulations would let licensed legal cannabis producers sell pre-rolled joints that contain up to 1 gram of dried pot, though producers could opt to sell smaller sizes too. That means a minimum of 30 pre-rolled joints.

And what if the pot is loose?

"It's sort of a baggie," said Sweet, who suggests a quick Google image search for a clear description. The first pictures that pop up show a sandwich bag that's mostly full of marijuana.

He said pictures will be a big part of the online training.

"[That] really helps police officers put into perspective what that threshold when they go into, 'Okay, this looks like way too much'."


Catherine Cullen

Senior reporter

Catherine Cullen is host of CBC Radio's The House and a Senior Reporter on Parliament Hill.