“Except as authorized under the regulations, no person shall possess … cannabis, its preparations, derivatives and similar synthetic preparations, including … cannabis (marihuana).” — Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
More than twice as many marijuana possession charges have been laid in Nelson in recent years compared to a decade ago.
The Vancouver Sun reported last week on the rise in charges for simple possession province-wide: 88 per cent between 2002 and 2011, far in excess of the population increase over the same period.
The newspaper also provided an online database giving community-by-community breakdowns based on data from Statistics Canada.
“Nelson, which earned a reputation for growing and smoking BC bud, had 298 charges per 100,000 people last year,” reporter Zoe McKnight noted.
That’s compared to 30 per 100,000 in Vancouver and 81 per 100,000 across Canada.
In actual numbers, 29 charges of simple possession were laid in 2011 in Nelson, second highest in the city during the period studied. The figures ranged from a low of two in 2003 to a high of 31 in 2009. In 2002, there were 14 charges.
Nelson police chief Wayne Holland, who joined the department in early 2011, said he couldn’t explain the higher numbers in recent years without an incident-by-incident review. However, the department does not have a strict policy about possession charges, leaving it largely to officers’ discretion.
“Every incident where marijuana is found on a person who interacts with a Nelson police officer is decided based on the facts of the file itself,” Holland said in an email.
He said a variety of factors are taken into account, including the amount involved, the circumstances that brought the person to police attention, whether they have a history of drug offences — especially trafficking — and whether it’s a young offender.
“On every occasion the officer uses their discretion as to whether to charge,” Holland says. “And if the decision is to charge, Crown Counsel reviews the recommendation to ensure the investigation and seizure were lawful and that the recommended charges are merited and have been lawfully brought to court.”
Philip McMillan of the Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club, which helps members access medicinal marijuana, said he couldn’t read too much into the statistics, but the recent jump could be the result of new police officers in the community — or just a statistical blip.
“Or it could be a prevailing misconception that cannabis is legal,” he said. “Twin that with Nelson’s reputation and I can see a few [people] thinking they can just spark up on Baker Street.”
Rural Nelson, policed by the RCMP, saw a similar increase in charges in 2009 and 2010 — 20 and 25 respectively — but the figure fell to 16 in 2011, closer to the norm of previous years.
SALMO SEES DRAMATIC SPIKE
An RCMP officer quoted by the Sun suggested areas with easy access to pot and lenient policing may result in more people openly flouting the law — and therefore more charges — but that may not explain one local anomaly.
Salmo saw five or fewer possession charges each year between 2002 and 2008, but has had 24 or 25 annually since 2009 — a per capita rate of 869 per 100,000, third highest in BC.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Dan Seibel attributed this in part to the creation in the spring of 2009 of the Kootenay Boundary regional detachment, which includes nine West Kootenay detachments and a plainclothes investigation section.
Seibel said when he and Insp. Nick Romanchuk arrived, they established annual performance plans with priorities including tackling organized crime, cross border smuggling and illegal drugs. Some projects also targeted outdoor grow-ops.
Seibel further noted a new corporal in Salmo worked closely with Shambhala organizers and security staff to reduce drugs at the music festival.
The Kaslo detachment saw a modest increase in possession charges: where zero to two were laid annually 2002-08, six or seven were laid 2009-11.
Not all West Kootenay communities saw increases, though: Trail has never hit double digits in a single year and had no charges last year.
The statistics don’t tell us how many charges resulted in convictions or what sorts of punishments were handed out. Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, simple possession of marijuana is illegal, although the amount involved determines the seriousness of the offence.
Having less than a gram of cannabis resin or 30 grams of cannabis is punishable on summary conviction by a fine of not more than $1,000 or six months in jail.
Larger amounts, however, can result in summary conviction fines of $2,000 and a year in jail for second offences, and up to five years in jail on indictment, even for a first offence.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the figures for Trail included Rossland and Beaver Valley. In fact, they are separate: although there were no charges in Trail proper in 2011, there were nine in the surrounding area.