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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Cannabis Control Policy

 Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper

 Health Protection Branch

Department of National Health and Welfare

January 1979

The Processing of a Cannabis Suspect Through the Criminal Justice System

The processing of a cannabis suspect involves two parallel but interrelated series of transactions: the first and most visible relates to the handling of the suspect; the second concerns the management of the data generated by a case. Although the data flow will be discussed in the next subsection, it should be noted here that the existence of such data may represent the most serious adverse consequence of the suspect's arrest or conviction.

As in most areas of the administration of criminal justice, police, prosecutors and judges have a broad range of options in handling a cannabis case. Their discretion is only partially limited by statute, regulations, court decisions and departmental policy. The broad range of legal options, the confidentiality and inaccessibility of, and variations in, departmental policies, and the large measure of unfettered discretion, make it impossible to describe all the ways in which a cannabis suspect might be processed. Depending on one's view, these variations may be considered essential for ensuring a flexible, individualized enforcement response, or as unequal treatment contrary to fundamental tenets of fairness. The former characterization would be appropriate only if discretion were consistently exercised in accordance with some express or implicit cannabis policy goal, rather than in furtherance of administrative expediency or personal whim. Although the existing evidence is sketchy, the variations in the processing of cannabis suspects do not appear to be based on a rational attempt to further any recognizable policy. It is not that the individual police officer, crown prosecutor or judge acts without due consideration or in bad faith, but rather that the results of their decisions cannot be rationalized. To the suspect who is arrested rather than warned, or held in custody rather than released on bail, or charged with importing a drug rather than possession, or fined rather than given an absolute discharge, the system must appear arbitrary and capricious. It should be of little solace to those responsible for cannabis policy that each decision is thoughtfully and conscientiously made if, as it appears, the decisions reflect the conflicting goals of thousands of independent decision-makers.

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