Canada's organized crime groups and gangs are much less likely to produce and traffic marijuana than they are other illicit drugs such as cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, according to a new federal study that tracked drug violations from police forces in four cities across three provinces.
The new report from Statistics Canada analyzed all drug-related violations over a two-year period in Victoria, Vancouver, Regina and Waterloo, Ont., and found that police linked organized crime to 39 per cent of all cannabis-trafficking charges and 6 per cent of cases involving the production of marijuana.
In comparison, these groups were linked to three-quarters of all heroin-trafficking charges, 62 per cent of all cocaine-trafficking violations and 60 per cent of those linked to the dealing of crystal methamphetamine.
Over all, slightly more than half of the 1,051 drug-related charges tracked over 2013 and 2014 involved organized crime or gangs, according to the study.
The Liberal federal government is set to introduce legislation this spring legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, which it says is necessary to stop young Canadians from getting easy access to the drug and to block billions in profits from flowing to violent criminal gangs.
The authors of the report, which draws on a pilot project aimed at improving police collection of this data, cautioned that their research is too limited to draw any conclusions about the roles gangs play in growing and dealing marijuana across the country.
But the data contradicts common RCMP wisdom that organized crime groups play a large role in Canada's underground cannabis trade, according to Neil Boyd, a professor at Simon Fraser University and drug prohibition scholar.
"To people who know how this industry has taken shape in many parts of [B.C.], this wouldn't be news and, if anything, it would still amount to an over-emphasis on the extent of the organized criminal involvement," Prof. Boyd said.
The study used the Criminal Code of Canada's definition of an organized crime group – three or more people who commit a serious offence in order to profit. That definition, Prof. Boyd says, likely captured criminals the general public does not consider gangsters, because they are not linked to threats of violence or corruption typically associated with organized crime.
"This isn't a particularly uniformly predatory kind of conduct," he said of producing or trafficking marijuana. "If they were to look more closely at use of force or corruption, I think you would get a very significant drop in organized activity in relation to cannabis."
Prof. Boyd co-authored a study that was submitted last summer to the federal panel on legalization that cited another government report from 2011 that showed just 5 per cent of marijuana criminal cases over an eight-year period had links to organized crime or street gangs.
He said gangs definitely play a role in the production and sale of the drug, but the Mounties have never proven to what extent, and all available research shows that most of those involved in Canada's cannabis industry are non-violent and do not commit any other crimes. He says overestimating the role of organized crime will create a new regime that will be too restrictive and simply perpetuate the black market.
Bill Blair, the MP in charge of Ottawa's push to legalize, did not respond to a request for comment.
Nate Erskine-Smith, a Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, said he was shocked that the new Statistics Canada report showed such high levels of organized crime involvement in the underground cannabis trade, given how ubiquitous the drug is in Canadian society.
He added that the data was collected before the illegal cannabis dispensaries exploded east across the country from Vancouver and does not capture how involved gangs could be with this illegal sector.
"Don't get me wrong, there are dispensaries across the country that are focused on harm reduction and treating patients, [but] other dispensaries are focused on making money," said Mr. Erskine-Smith, whose Toronto constituency office was once near a pot shop that was among 45 raided by police last year. "And I have no idea where the profits are flowing; that's another reason we should have a regulated environment.
"Maybe there is serious criminal involvement – gangs and the like – involved in supplying some of these dispensaries, I honestly don't know."
Staff-Sergeant Lindsey Houghton, spokesman for British Columbia's anti-gang task force, said very few gangsters are ever charged with or implicated in marijuana offences.
"They, like legitimate businesses, are going to engage in activities that are going to make them the most profit," he said.
Increasingly over the past two decades, that has meant turning away from cannabis to pursue the importation, production and trafficking of chemical substances such as fentanyl, Staff Sgt. Houghton said.
"The profit margin for the same quantity of fentanyl versus marijuana is significantly greater," he said. "Never mind the startup and labour intensity that goes into massive large-scale marijuana grow operations that we've all seen pictures of – you need warehouses for that.
"You need a small kitchen and a pill press to produce thousands and thousands of pills of fentanyl, which are killing thousands of people across this country."