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Part of cannabis laws and regulations

Charges for cannabis possession dropped about 22 per cent across the country last year, continuing a steady decrease ahead of legalization, according to new data from Statistics Canada.

Figures released this week show 13,768 people were charged with possession of as much as 30 grams of cannabis in 2017, down from almost 18,000 a year earlier and 26,000 in 2013. But legalization advocates say even the lower figures are far too high and argue that Ottawa will need to implement a simple way to clear the records of the thousands of people saddled with criminal records for using a drug that will soon be legal.

Overall cannabis offences, whereby police officers register someone using, growing or trafficking the drug without necessarily laying charges, have continued to decline since 2011, the data showed.

Abbotsford, B.C., Deputy Police Chief Mike Serr, a former Vancouver gang officer who chairs the drug advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said the declines are largely a result of police forces pivoting to focus on more dangerous drugs such as opioids, which are killing thousands of people each year across the country.

“We have seen the numbers come down more, and more police officers are certainly using discretion [when investigating cannabis offences],” he said. “Any type of drug work that we have dedicated ourselves to [in B.C.] has been to address those drugs that cause the most public harm, and that for us right now is opioids and fentanyl.”

The Statscan data do not say whether the cannabis possession charges involved cases in which someone was charged with other drug offences as well, which Deputy Chief Serr said is quite common.

“We haven’t drilled down to those numbers at all to see if there’s multiple offences included with that,” he said.

Despite the overall decline in the number of people being charged, Saskatchewan and Quebec still saw much higher rates of possession charges than the national average of 43 per 100,000 people. Saskatchewan had a rate of 63 last year, followed closely by Quebec at 62 and then Nunavut at 46. Those figures echoed a 2014 Globe and Mail investigation that studied the same data from 2012 and found wildly inconsistent enforcement across the country.

Last year, B.C. was slightly above the national average at just below 44. That may be because the province’s more permissive attitudes toward cannabis resulted in more calls to crack down on those causing a nuisance by consuming it in public, as has been the case in Colorado, Deputy Chief Serr said.

Jack Lloyd, a lawyer in Toronto who specializes in cannabis cases, estimates that in recent years he has helped more than 700 clients get their possession charges withdrawn after they were swept up in raids of illegal dispensaries. Common law peace bonds allow such accused people to agree to certain conditions – such as not working in an unlicensed dispensary – in exchange for seeing their charges withdrawn by a judge.

But thousands more people have unjustly been saddled with a criminal record for possessing a drug that will soon be legal, he said.

“Just being charged is a life-changing event,” Mr. Lloyd said. “It may prevent you from getting jobs. It may prevent you from travelling.”

Studies have shown that racialized and low-income Canadians have been disproportionately prosecuted and harmed by being charged during the prohibition of cannabis.

Once the drug is legalized, Mr. Lloyd said, Ottawa should expunge all those criminal records for simple possession, a move akin to the how the federal government cleared the records of men who were criminally convicted when homosexual acts were a crime.

Hilary Peirce, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said that once cannabis is legalized, Ottawa “will look at ways to make things fair for those who have criminal records for minor possession offences.

“We are in the process of a major change in Canadian society,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “We’re taking the time to make this change in an orderly, coherent way.”