The discussion around the legalization of marijuana is heating up across Canada, especially because of the Liberal government’s decision to introduce legislation for legalization as early as next spring.
With many questions arising around the impending legislation, Legal Feeds asked lawyers how they think the legalization of marijuana will affect the justice system.
“I don’t think that people should anticipate that the backlog of the courts is largely due to prosecutions from minor possessions of marijuana,” says Edward Prutschi, partner at Adler Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman Criminal Litigation, when asked whether legalizing marijuana will assist in dealing with court delays. “It will create some opening though because people are not going to be prosecuted for these types of cases anymore and I think that is to the benefit of the system as a whole . . . and it will be a benefit from a police resource perspective.”
Nathan Gorham, partner at Rusonik O’Connor Robbins Ross Gorham & Angelini LLP, agrees with Prutschi, but he adds that he thinks the legalization of marijuana could potentially lead to the decrease of violent crimes often associated with gangs and the selling of marijuana at street level — robbery, assault and even murder — although he is unsure if the potential decrease in these crimes would be enough to make a difference within the justice system.
“If marijuana is decriminalized, presumably we’re not going to have street-level dealers anymore who are able to make a lot of money because there’s a high markup on it. Then you’ll see less of the cases where those dealers are carrying guns or those dealers are the victims of robbery or there’s competition between one another that leads to shootings and other violence,” he adds.
The federal government’s task force appointed to study how marijuana could be regulated and sold once legalized issued a report in early December. The Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’s report contains more than 80 recommendations on how the government could tax, market and distribute marijuana.
The task force recommends that sales be restricted to those 18 and older, with a public possession limit of 30 grams of dried cannabis. Unlike cases of marijuana possession (those below the set legal amount), cases that won’t disappear from the courts are those involving trafficking and growing marijuana.
In terms of sentencing, Prutschi thinks it will be situational. For example, a person who is just a few grams over the legal limit will probably be diverted out of the legal system, whereas a person selling it at street level in large quantities without paying the taxes or having a licence to do so will receive a much harsher sentence.
Since those other related activities aren’t being legalized, he predicts those offences will be treated the same way in the courts, perhaps even with the current level of punishment depending on the situation.
Prutschi also predicts that laws surrounding other drugs will see no impact, especially because there’s a “significant difference between the [health] risks that are posted by marijuana” compared with drugs such as cocaine, heroin or fentanyl, for instance.
On the other hand, Gorham anticipates that marijuana legalization might open up the dialogue on whether or not other illicit drugs should be treated with a “health-based” approach rather than an “enforcement” approach. For example, if a health-based approach is taken, more safe injection sites could be built so people wouldn’t be forced to take those drugs “underground.” Similar to what he believes would happen with marijuana, this would perhaps limit other more serious and violent crimes related to these other illicit drugs.
“If the marijuana policy works out, then it may be an important stepping stone to opening up the conversation for change in regards to other illicit substances and how we try to target them and assist the people who are addicted to them,” says Gorham.