Marijuana will be legal for recreational use by one year from Saturday if a Liberal Party of Canada promise holds true, but the Okanagan’s courthouses are still seeing dozens of cases involving marijuana each year.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Okanagan courts took on a total of 142 new cases involving marijuana-related charges for 133 individual people, according to data obtained by Black Press.
Of those 142 new cases brought to Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon’s courts over that two-year period, 62 came in 2016, after the Liberal Party of Canada was elected on a platform that highlighted their promise to legalize recreational uses of cannabis.
The remaining 80 cases arose in 2015, meaning a decrease in cases the following year. Kelowna and Vernon both saw a similar decrease of cases in 2016, while Penticton saw a small increase.
In fact, a substantial decrease came across the province in 2016, with 827 new cases brought to B.C.’s courts in 2015 compared to 695 in 2016.
The Liberal promise to legalize recreational pot was solidified in April, when the government announced the drug would be fully legalized by Canada Day 2018 — a year from last Saturday.
That anybody is being charged with marijuana-related offences doesn’t sit well with West Kootenay–South Okanagan MP Richard Cannings with the NDP, which is calling for the decriminalization of pot until it’s legal.
“We’re criminalizing people, and they’re usually young people, in cities it’s often racialized people,” Cannings said. “So, people that are just trying to get started in life, and here we are giving them a criminal record for something that we’re saying is not only not criminal, but should be legal.”
Another reason Cannings says pressing marijuana charges is problematic at this point is the issue of overcrowded courthouse dockets and a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling, R v. Jordan, which put strict limits on the length of time between arrest and trial.
In provincial court, that’s limited to 18 months, while Supreme Courts must take no longer than 30 months. Those restrictions are all too familiar with defence attourney Don Skogstad, who says he has taken on hundreds of marijuana cases over the years.
Skogstad predicts the province will hit a “Jordan wall,” in which overcapacity courthouses will likely see more and more charges dropped due to lengthy delays.
“We have Jordan problems here in Canada, and, here in B.C., we’re not immune from it. You know, the other provinces have decided to hire more prosecutors,” he said. “Not here. We’re going to run into a Jordan wall in January when the grace period runs out.
Cannings points to some high-profile incidents, where the Jordan ruling has already wreaked some havoc in the country’s court system.
“We’ve had cases of people charged with murder thrown out of court because their trials couldn’t proceed in time,” Cannings said. “There’s been thousands of these cases, not all serious cases such as murder, but thousands of these cases thrown out.”
Of the 142 cases in the Okanagan, 40 are still in progress before the courts, 17 of which are coming from 2015. But even if a case began on the last day of 2015, the Jordan deadline for getting that case through the courts will be up by July 1, unless delays were initiated by the defence.
That issue is most pronounced for Kelowna, where 13 cases from 2015 are still active, compared to 11 cases still in progress from 2016.
Comparatively, Penticton and Vernon have one and three cases respectively still active from 2015, with six active from 2016 in each city.
Local dispensary operator Jukka Laurio says his customers aren’t too worried about getting busted for possession these days.
“It’s something they consider, but concern is probably not the word for it. They know it’s still illegal, they know they can get pulled over, and they know they can get it confiscated, and that’s all really irritating,” he said. “But none of them are fearful of being convicted.”
While Laurio agrees that pot should be decriminalized, he says those who buy it, possess it and sell it know the risks that come along with it.
“It’s not a matter of fair or unfair, because the law is still on the books. But it’s sort of like closing the barn door after the cow’s already out, because anybody with a good lawyer can keep it extended to past the point at which they legalize it,” Laurio said.
Skogstad says typically in the Okanagan marijuana charges are coming alongside more serious offences, including possession of harder drugs or other crimes like a break-and-enter.
“If somebody phoned into the police and said there’s a guy smoking marijuana down the block, they’re likely not going to respond,” Skogstad said, adding that many of the other charges are laid on drivers.
Numbers provided by the Court Services Branch didn’t indicate how many of the charges were standalone marijuana charges and how many came alongside other charges. And while it did provide the number of guilty rulings — 51 throughout the valley in 2015 and 34 in 2016 — CSB notes that the the numbers don’t necessarily reflect the attitude toward pot, because guilty numbers are calculated at the case level, not the charge level.
“For example, an accused charged on an information with theft under $5,000 and possession of marijuana. In court, they may be found guilty of theft and not guilty or charges stayed on the marijuana possession charge. This is counted as a guilty finding case,” the CSB wrote.
But what is more clear-cut is the number of cases stayed, withdrawn or found not guilty, as it would apply to all charges in each case. In all three courthouses, however, it totals just 16 cases over both years, with three-quarters of those coming from 2015.
For those cases that do get picked up in the courts, however, Skogstad says lawyers will likely just delay any hearing until legalization, when the charges would be dropped.
“You don’t have to do much to delay a case a year,” he said.
“We would be derelict in our duty if we didn’t tell our client to take advantage of the charter and the one-year period before legalization.”
A request for comment to local RCMP was deferred to E Division in the Lower Mainland, which did not respond.