Canada's police chiefs say they want to end the practice of criminally charging every person found with small amounts of marijuana, voting to give officers the option of issuing tickets akin to the ones people receive for driving infractions or jaywalking.
The federal government would first have to soften current drug legislation, which it has shown no interest in doing. The issue of marijuana has put the Conservative government at odds with opposition leaders, including Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who in July said he supported the outright legalization of the drug.
The membership of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police ratified a resolution Tuesday at its annual general meeting to expand enforcement options on illicit possession of cannabis, specifically allowing police to issue tickets for simple possession. The Controlled Substances Act categorizes simple possession of cannabis as 30 grams or less.
While the association said the resolution does not mean the organization supports the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, Tuesday's resolution shows the desire of the police to do away with the current system of enforcement.
Timothy Smith, a spokesman for the association, said that out of the hundreds of members who voted Tuesday, only one member, who is not active in policing, voted against the resolution.
"Part of this is the economics of policing across Canada. It's a way of creating efficiencies, not only within our system but also in the judicial system, because there are a significant number of cases that go before the courts," Chief Mander said.
The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that of 62,510 cannabis-related offences in 2007, 75 per cent were for possession. The figures did not specify how many of those possessions were 30 grams or less.
Chief Mander said that criminally processing an individual for simple possession requires more resources than issuing a ticket.
The association also says that issuing tickets can help individuals avoid the significant barriers on travel, obtaining employment and citizenship that comes with a criminal record.
"We felt we needed an alternative," he said, adding that many officers have turned a blind eye to simple possession already."In effect, what does that do to community safety? You're doing nothing. Expectations are you're going to do something about that," he said.
Chief Mander said officers would still have the discretion to lay criminal charges for simple possession in certain circumstances, for example when someone is smoking marijuana while driving a vehicle.
The resolution will be passed on to Ottawa, Chief Mander says, and the government can decide whether to add a ticketing option for marijuana possession through the federal Contraventions Act.
Mr. Trudeau's office said in a statement that it welcomed the association's resolution, adding that current drug policy is a "costly failure."
"The government's policy is to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to arrest hundreds of thousands of Canadians, for something that shouldn't be a crime. Liberals believe deeply in freedom and choice," the statement said.
The Harper government, on the other hand, appeared cool to the idea Tuesday.
"I need to be clear here that our government has no intention of legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana," Justice Minister Peter MacKay said. "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."
Alan Young, an Osgoode Hall law professor who has worked to change drug-enforcement strategies for 20 years, said the association's resolution is a step in the right direction, but added that issuing tickets would not have a large economic impact, as simple possession charges are often already thrown out in the courts, and any ticketing scheme would have associated costs.
He was also skeptical about whether the government would be willing to amend current drug legislation.
"The Conservative government is too ideologically driven on the drug issue, and they're not really weighing the proper factors to determine what is good for the country," he said.
With files from Steven Chase