Article by Rachel Browne, Vice News
Black and Indigenous men and women have been overrepresented in cannabis possession arrests across Canada in the years since Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister, according to a VICE News investigation based on police data obtained through freedom of information requests.
It’s the first public set of statistics of its kind, as national arrest and charge numbers broken down by race do not exist in Canada, and police are under no obligation to proactively disclose them. The exclusive data provides further evidence that racial disparities in cannabis possession arrests are an issue in Canada, just like in the U.S.
The racial divide in cannabis possession arrests from 2015 to the first half of 2017 in cities such as Regina, Saskatchewan and Halifax, Nova Scotia is especially striking, though research has shown that cannabis use is similar across different racial groups.
Indigenous people in Regina were nearly nine times more likely to get arrested for cannabis possession than white people during that time period. Meanwhile, black people in Halifax were more than five times more likely to get arrested for possessing weed than white people.
This year, Canada is set to become the second country in the world to legalize cannabis for recreational use. And the government is facing mounting pressure to promptly clear the criminal records of those who have been convicted of the offence, and to ensure the legal recreational market provides opportunities for those who have been criminalized for cannabis possession. While Ottawa says it’s exploring granting amnesty for those crimes, it’s unclear exactly when or if that will happen. Currently, it’s up to individuals to apply for their own pardons five years after their sentence is completed — at a cost of more than $600.
VICE News submitted freedom of information requests to 14 police services across Canada for simple cannabis possession arrest statistics from 2015 to 2017 broken down by race, age, gender of the accused, and other categories. Data related to the offence of cannabis possession was requested because it will be legal to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis after legalization, and because of the wide discretion police have in arresting and charging people for this offence.
Only six police services disclosed data that successfully met the request: Regina, Halifax, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa. All cities provided data up until the middle of 2017, except Ottawa, which provided statistics for all of 2017. Some police services, such as Vancouver, indicated the amount of cannabis the alleged offenders possessed, while others just listed the offence as general possession. These datasets were shared with University of Toronto criminologists Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Alex Luscombe who reviewed them and provided analysis.