Toronto’s Pot Diversions

Cannabis activism, complains Neev Tapiero, is “almost unknown” in Toronto, at least compared to West Coast and European cities. Tapiero might be over-stating the case; he does, after all, act as spokesperson for the Medical Marijuana Resource Centre of Ontario, a province-wide cannabis club with its headquarters in Toronto. Ontario’s capital city is also home to Terry Parker, Canada’s only legal medical toker, Jim Wakeford, who’s suing the feds for the right to inhale medicinal weed, and lawyers Alan Young and Paul Burstein, who are fighting Canada’s pot laws in court.
Still, Tapiero’s right when he says Toronto fades in comparison to fabled cannabis meccas such as San Francisco and Vancouver. There are no home-grown hash bars in Toronto, while pot rallies and street protests are few and far between. Most importantly, Toronto police do not follow a “no arrest” policy for minor marijuana possession cases, as they have in Vancouver since 1995. Toronto police “do not support decriminalization of drug use” states Deputy Chief Steve Reesor.

That said, Toronto has very quietly introduced an “alternative sentencing” program which allows non-violent, first-time marijuana offenders to avoid trial and a criminal record in return for performing community work. The program goes like this: minor marijuana offenders who are taken to court at Toronto’s Old City Hall are given the option of 25 hours of community service instead of a trial. If they complete their service, and provide a note from the community organization at which they volunteered, charges are dropped and the toker can walk.

Community Service or Criminal Record

These changes are only possible because of Bill C-41, an obscure piece of legislation first introduced in 1994, which gives local Crown Prosecutors more leeway in handling minor criminal offences. According to the wording of the bill, C-41 allows prosecutors to apply “measures other than judicial proceedings? to deal with a person who is eighteen years of age or over and alleged to have committed an offence.” Translated, this means communities can use non-jail sentences – ranging from probation, parole, “house arrest”, community service, etc ? to deal with minor league criminals.

The main aim of the legislation was to “remove less serious offences from the legal system,” explains Brendan Crawley, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. Indeed, Toronto didn’t introduce pre-trial diversion to be nice to pot smokers, but rather to clear up crowded court dockets. Old City Hall, for example, sees 10-15 minor possession cases every day, which means alternative sentencing can go a long way in eliminating endless petty pot trials. At present, Old City Hall diverts about a dozen cannabis “criminals” from trial each week.

Saves money, less jail-filling

Ottawa Criminologist Matthew Yeager points out that alternative sentences are not only a lot cheaper than jail terms (it costs roughly $150 a day to incarcerate someone in Canada), they also offer a more practical form of justice than simply locking up small-time prisoners.

Yeager, who holds a masters degree in criminology from the University of California and a masters in criminal justice from State University of New York, arranges alternative sentences for about two dozen clients a year through his Ottawa office. He believes harsh criminal sentences don’t necessarily translate into safe societies, pointing out that if this was the case, America would be drug free and crime free by now.

“The more people are faced with prison, the more likely they’re not going to take responsibility for their actions,” he states. “When you raise the ante, people will take every action to prevent going to jail, and will do their best to clog the system up.”

That said, Yeager is less than impressed by diversion programs such as Toronto’s, stating that not many first-time marijuana offenders go to jail any more. “To make alternative sentencing work,” he states, “it must look at people going to jail for a long time.”

30,000 possession busts

Yeager is correct on one point: while a recent report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse estimates about 2,000 Canadians serve jail-time every year for marijuana possession, not many of these people come from Toronto. Toronto, in fact, has a significantly lower pot arrest rate than the rest of the province ? 41 per 100,000 people in Toronto, versus 92 for the rest of the province. (Montreal, by way of comparison, had a pot arrest rate of 43 per 100,000 people.)

Still, these stats aren’t any reason to get complacent. The same CCSA report states that in 1995, there were 45,286 arrests made for cannabis crimes across the whole country ? 31,299 of which were for simple possession.

The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Bill C-8), was claimed to remove the possibility of criminal records for people caught with under 30 grams of marijuana or one gram of hash, but this hasn’t happened. Despite claims to the contrary by the Liberals and the RCMP, anyone arrested for possession still receives a criminal record, which can interfere with crossing the border or getting a job.

Cops, councillors, treaties

During debate on C-8, the Liberals claimed “international treaty obligations” prevented them from decriminalizing cannabis. Fortunately for them, these same treaties speak favourably of alternative sentences. The1988 Vienna Convention, for example, says that member countries may provide, “as an alternative to conviction or punishment? measures for treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation or social reintegration of the offender.” A recent publication by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme went further, noting that “alternative measures may always substitute for criminal prosecution” in possession cases.

The local Toronto constabulary might oppose more progressive reforms, but they also think alternative sentences could be a good thing for minor drug cases. City police “see the potential for pre-trial diversion rather than incarceration,” according to Deputy Chief Reesor. “There is no doubt that our judicial system is facing big backlogs and that correction facilities are not able to handle [the number of prisoners],” he continues. “So there is a will within the police community and judicial community to introduce pre-trial diversion.”

A wimpy good start

This is all good news, except that alternative sentencing for first-time cannabis offenders is a pretty wimpy initiative, compared to the stuff that’s coming out of other parts of the world. For example, cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Zurich, Basel, Hamburg and Frankfurt, (all members of the European Cities on Drug Policy), are all experimenting with varying degrees of decriminalization, with successful results.

Toronto’s diversion policy is also fairly tame compared to drug policy in San Francisco, where medical pot providers enjoy strong municipal support, and Vancouver, where marijuana is as common as rain.

Until the Liberals finally live up to their 1980 Throne Speech promise to decriminalize pot, however, alternative sentencing is still a better deal than jail-time or a criminal record for smoking the kind in Canada’s largest city.