Contrary to common RCMP wisdom, organized crime groups play a relatively small role in Canada's underground cannabis trade, and the majority of people behind the country's illegal grow operations and dispensaries are otherwise law-abiding, a group of academics and small-scale marijuana businesses have told the federal legalization task force.
A written submission co-authored by a prominent criminologist on behalf of a drug-policy advocacy group cites government data that showed just 5 per cent of marijuana criminal cases over an eight-year period had links to organized crime or street gangs.
And the groups warn that overestimating the role of organized crime will create a new regime that will be too restrictive and simply perpetuate the black market.
The federal Liberal government is soliciting input from across the country as it prepares to introduce legislation next spring to legalize recreational marijuana, which it says is necessary to stop young Canadians from getting easy access to the drug and to stop the flow of profits to violent criminal gangs.
"A lot of this comes down to your definition of organized crime. If you think three people acting together and potentially making some kind of profit necessarily means that these are organized criminals, then, of course, everybody in the cannabis industry is an organized criminal," said Neil Boyd, a professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the report that the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition is sending to the federal task force this week.
"But if you think along the lines of the Justice Canada website, where the focus is on corruption [and] the use of force or violence, you'll find very few people in the marijuana industry are properly defined as organized criminals," Prof. Boyd said.
Ottawa should allow a variety of these independent, small-scale growers and dispensaries to participate in the emerging legal market, not just restrict the commercial production and sale of cannabis to the two dozen companies now licensed for Health Canada's medical marijuana regime, Prof. Boyd added.
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 in Canada's cannabis industry are non-violent and do not commit any other crimes.
In 2011, the Department of Justice pulled 500 random marijuana production cases from the files of the Crown prosecutor and the RCMP dating back eight years and found just 5 per cent of offenders had links to organized crime or street gangs, Prof. Boyd's report notes. An RCMP-funded study of B.C. marijuana grow operations found that 6 per cent of the sites analyzed had guns, the report notes.
The role of organized crime in the cannabis trade also came up during a recent Federal Court case that focused on whether rules established by the Harper government that prohibited medical marijuana patients from growing at home were constitutional. The court ruled against the government, which had argued, among other things, that allowing patients to grow their own marijuana often leads to diversion into the black market.
In February, the Federal Court judge who heard the case questioned the credibility of the RCMP's expert witness on illegal marijuana cultivation. In his ruling, the judge noted that the Mounties had no hard data to back up their claims that home growers licensed under Canada's old medical system were magnets for violent thieves and organized crime. The RCMP witness also stated that it is very difficult for the force to know the extent to which organized criminals were able to penetrate the previous system because of the secrecy surrounding most of these groups.
The RCMP was unavailable for comment on Monday afternoon.
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.
"We've had a few, but it's not the majority," he said.
A report submitted to the federal task force by the Cannabis Trade Alliance of Canada, which represents owners of legal and illegal marijuana businesses, recommended that Ottawa create different licensing and security requirements for a range of cannabis businesses, including seed and clone nurseries, commercial growers both large and small, processors of oil and extract, cannabis wholesalers and dispensaries.
Including all of these players would give the government more leverage to control them and stamp out objectionable activity, the group argues in its report.
Sarah Campbell, director of the Craft Cannabis Association of B.C., the other trade association that submitted a report, said most business relationships between suppliers and dispensaries are built on face-to-face contact among average people such as herself.
Ms. Campbell, who has a commerce degree and quit the self-publishing industry several years ago when her company moved to the United States, makes edible cannabis products on Vancouver Island and sells only to local dispensaries run by "people that I know and trust and I know have integrity."