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A proposal advanced by Canada's top cops could see tickets instead of criminal charges handed out for tokers pinched for small-time marijuana possession.
The proposal appears to have traction within Winnipeg's criminal justice community and has piqued the curiosity of Manitoba's top law enforcement official.
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan said when police step forward with ideas like this one, it's important to listen.
"I always welcome advice from police," he said. He added he'd welcome an opportunity to discuss the proposal with Peter MacKay, the federal government's newly minted justice minister. MacKay said in an email to The Canadian Press that the federal government has no intention of legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana.
"These drugs are illegal because of the harmful effects they have on users -- and on society for that matter. As a government, we have a responsibility to protect the interests of families across this country."
The resolution was passed Tuesday by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) in Winnipeg, where hundreds of senior Canadian law-enforcement officials are gathered to discuss and vote on ideas they say reflect progressive changes in policing.
CACP president Chief Jim Chu told reporters the current regime where officers can either caution a person for "simple possession" of marijuana and let them go outright or arrest and send them through the courts for prosecution, needs to change.
Chu, chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department, was clear, however: The CACP is not advocating the decriminalization of pot or doing away with cops' ability to lay charges where circumstances warrant it. He pointed out that a conviction results in a criminal record that places barriers on future travel, employment and citizenship. A ticket under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act would avoid that record.
But police should have the discretion to hand out tickets to divert people away from the criminal justice system and reduce pressures on police and court resources, Chu, flanked by the CACP's drug-abuse committee chair Chief Mark Mander, said.
Mander, chief of the Kentville, N.S. police service, said the issue is timely given recent debate over marijuana and its criminalization.
He described the amount of time and money spent on pushing minor pot-possession cases through the courts as a "significant burden" on the justice system overall. Many police simply look the other way when it comes to minor pot-possession cases, he said.
But the committee's report said the large majority of simple possession cases could be more efficiently dealt with through tickets.
"By adding this additional policing tool, we are proposing a responsible public safety initiative that will be of overall benefit to all Canadians," said Mander, head of the association's drug abuse committee.
A longtime Winnipeg officer said Tuesday said arresting, charging and processing paperwork on a person charged with marijuana possession under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act can take between two to five hours or longer
"And that's a fast arrest," the officer said. "A ticket? Takes 20 minutes."
Sometimes, the paperwork hassle and time off the street isn't worth it, he said. "I can't tell you the number of times I've stopped someone with weed in the car, taken it, stomped it and said, 'get out of here,' " he said. "It's not worth the headache."
Many criminal defence lawyers consulted by the Free Press signalled they were in favour of the CACP's proposal, including Karl Gowenlock, who called it a "great idea."
"It's clearly a criminal offence most Canadians don't think should be criminalized. It definitely creates a lot of unnecessary work for the court system on charges that don't really present any risk to the public," said Gowenlock.
One concern he had was over police being given greater leeway to decide how they deal with people they catch.
"How are they going to use that discretion? What kind of people are they going to lay a ticket on and what kind of people are they going to lay a charge on?" he wondered.
The proposal would also require a certain amount of buy-in from the provinces and require tweaks to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and other legislation to be approved by Parliament.
Winnipeg Police Association president Mike Sutherland said he wanted to consult with his members before saying where the police union stood.
One long-time drug-prohibition opponent says the idea is an old one and won't help to combat the scourge of organized crime or curb the growth of street gangs which exploit youth by turning them into street dealers with the promise of easy money.
"It's nothing new," said retired Winnipeg police Staff Sgt. Bill VanderGraaf. The same idea surfaced in the 1990s and went nowhere, he said.
"If it's still a form of criminalization, then it's no advancement at all," said VanderGraaf, a former homicide detective who is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a marijuana-legalization advocate.
-- With files from The Canadian Press
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