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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

A Statistical Review of Arrest, Conviction and Sentencing Patterns

Statistics related to the enforcement of cannabis offences have been compiled by both the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs and the Justice Division of Statistics Canada. The trend from the mid-1960s until 1974 was one of dramatic annual increases in the number of persons charged with and convicted of cannabis offences. More recently there has been some stabilization of reported possession offences, but the annual number of distributional offences continues to grow.

Arrest statistics. In 1969, 4,756 adults and juveniles were charged by police with cannabis of fences. By 1977, this figure had risen to 52,233. The total number charged with cannabis offences during this nine-year period exceeds one-quarter million (267,300) and will likely have exceeded 300,000 by the end of 1978. For the past four years, cannabis offences have represented about 90% of all Canadian drug charges under the Narcotic Control Act and Food and Drugs Act. More significantly, cannabis offences have constituted approximately one in eight adult, non-driving charges in Canada every year since 1973. If federal highway traffic of fences are included, the proportion drops to about one in eleven. Viewed in another light, cannabis possession offences alone account for roughly 25% of the increase in the official "crime rate" between 1969 and 1976. (See Justice Division, Statistics Canada, Catalogue 85-205.)

Conviction statistics. Convictions have also risen dramatically. In 1968, there were 1,453 convictions for cannabis offences, 1,097 of which were for simple possession. In 1977, convictions for all cannabis offences had risen to 40,020 with simple possession accounting for 90% of the total. During the 1968-1977 decade, 180,987 Canadians were convicted of cannabis possession, and an additional 18,499 persons were convicted of trafficking, importing, and cultivation offences. Over 70% of these convictions occurred in just three provinces, Ontario (36.6%), British Columbia (20.1%) and Alberta (14.8%).

Whereas true opiate narcotics accounted for 98.3% of all convictions under the N.C.A. in 1961, by 1977 the opiates' share of convictions under this Act had dropped to 1.3%. Given that cannabis now accounts for over 96% of all N.C.A. convictions, and that virtually 90% of all cannabis offences are for simple possession, police assertions that they are concentrating on "hard drugs" and major cannabis distribution cases appear suspect.

Simple possession convictions have risen by a factor of thirty between 1968 and 1977 while, in the same decade, trafficking convictions have only increased tenfold. There has, however, been an interesting shift within the distributional offences. In 1969, for example, 72% of the distributional convictions were for trafficking, while only 28% were for possession for the purpose of trafficking. These proportions soon began to reverse: in 1974 and 1975, 75% of the distributional convictions were for possession far the purpose, and according to the 1977 data this offence still accounts for 65% of the trafficking convictions. Both trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking carry the same penal sanctions.

The tremendous increase in simple possession convictions is probably due more to the efforts of uniformed police engaged in general enforcement duties than to the expansion of the RCMP, municipal and provincial police drug squads. It was only in the late 1960s that uniformed officers began to make substantial numbers of cannabis arrests, and this might also partially explain the subsequent shift in the distributional offences. While uniformed police could make large numbers of arrests for possession and possession for the purpose of trafficking, they would almost never make trafficking arrests. The shift in trafficking offences might also reflect enforcement difficulties in making undercover purchases from medium- and large-scale trafficking groups. Petty trafficking arrests are easily effected at concerts, bars and on street corners, but making larger purchases from more sophisticated and cautious traffickers is far more difficult. Consequently the drug squads may be content to raid a known dealer in the hope of finding sufficient evidence to secure a conviction for possession for the purpose, rather than attempting to engineer a trafficking purchase.

Use of these alternative strategies is supported by a recent study of the actual quantity of cannabis involved in the various cannabis offences as recorded in the 1975 conviction data of the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs (Bryan, et al., 1978.) Half of those convicted of trafficking in marijuana sold one ounce (30 grams) or less of the drug; 70% sold under four ounces. Of those convicted of possessing marijuana for the purpose of trafficking, only 16% possessed less than four ounces, while 48% possessed more than a pound. Similarly with respect to hashish: 78% of the trafficking convictions involved one ounce or less as compared to only 32% of the possession for the purpose convictions. By way of comparison, 84% of the marijuana possession and 97% of the hashish possession convictions involved one ounce or less.

Sentencing statistics. Sentences have become less severe during the past decade, especially in simple possession cases. A change in judicial attitudes is partly responsible. The most influential factor, however, has probably been the introduction of discharge provisions in July 1972. At the same time, federal drug prosecutors were instructed to seek discharges in all first offence cannabis possession cases where the offender had no previous criminal record or concurrent conviction. The judiciary refused to automatically grant discharges in these cases in the absence of specific legislation to that effect. There has been, however, a steady rise in the use of discharges since 1972. (See Leon, 1977: esp. 51-53) Sentences for distributional offences have also become less severe, but the change is far less dramatic than in possession cases.

In 1968, 43.4% of those convicted of simple possession were awarded custodial sentences; the rest were fined or granted probation or suspended sentences. Fines soon became the preferred disposition, rising to 77.3% of the possessory sentences awarded in 1971. Despite the introduction of discharges, fines still accounted for 65.7% of the possession sentences in 1977. It is surprising that discharges, which were specifically designed to reduce the stigma of a cannabis possession conviction, have never accounted for more than 25% of simple possession dispositions.

About 4%, or 1,317 of those convicted for simple possession in 1977 were sentenced to incarceration, including 10 persons who received more than a year, and 18 who received indefinite periods. About 40% of those imprisoned were 20 years of age or under. In total, imprisonment has been imposed in over 10,000 convictions for cannabis possession during the past decade. However, these figures are misleading, as it appears that more people are incarcerated for default in payment of fines than are sentenced to incarceration. A recent study (Hartman, May 15, 1978) indicated that 587 persons convicted of possession in British Columbia between 1974 and May of 1978 were imprisoned for up to six months for default. This total exceeds the number of persons actually awarded custodial sentences during the same period. If this pattern applies nationally, as is indicated by recent Ontario data (Patterson, June 21, 1978: Labelle, July 14,1978), then close to 3,100 persons were incarcerated during 1977 as a direct consequence of simple possession convictions.

Sentences for trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking have become slightly less punitive since 1969. Custodial sentences for possession for the purpose of trafficking accounted for more than 75% of the cases in 1969, 1970 and 1971, but only 66% in 1975, 1976 and 1977. Over 80% of those incarcerated received less than one year, and over 90% received less than 2 years. Sentencing practices in trafficking cases have been relatively consistent: between 75% to 82% of traffickers were incarcerated each year from 1970 to 1977. There has been a trend toward shorter custodial sentences with less than 5% of those incarcerated for trafficking sentenced to more than two years. The courts have not consistently distinguished between levels of trafficking, and undoubtedly some marginal or insignificant traffickers are still being severely punished.

Persons convicted of importation are subject to a mandatory minimum of seven years' incarceration, regardless of the quantity involved. Almost all importing dispositions since 1973 have been for this mandatory minimum period. Occasionally, however, importers have received fines, probation, discharges, and one-, two- and three-year sentences. These unauthorized sentences probably reflect the individual judges' concern for the disproportionality of the statutory minimum sentence.

Cultivation convictions increased from 6 in 1968 to 145 in 1977. As in the past, about a third of those convicted in 1977 received custodial sentences. Of those incarcerated, only one received more than six months.

In summary, one out of every eight Canadian adult criminal charges, excluding highway traffic crimes, is for a cannabis offence. Approximately 38,000 persons are annually convicted of cannabis violations. Ninety percent of these convictions are for simple possession of marijuana or hashish. Despite a general reduction in the severity of sentences in cannabis cases, over 1,300 persons were sentenced to prison for simple possession in 1977. At least this number were subsequently imprisoned for defaulting on fines imposed for simple possession. These default incarcerations are likely borne by the young and the poor — those same classes most exposed to the risk of arrest and conviction in the first place.

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