Kelowna, B.C., tops the list of 34 Canadian cities for the highest per capita rate of marijuana charges. There were 251 charges per 100,000 population in 2014, far above the Canadian average of 79. The city of St. John's, by contrast, had 11 charges per 100,000.
Stephen Harper announced a tougher attitude on drug possession when he took office, and statistics show marijuana incidents and charges have gone up by about 30 per cent between 2006 and 2014. But local attitudes by law enforcement play a big role in how many charges are laid, according to experts.
"There's no clear and obvious reason for treating people differently," said Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd.
As for Kelowna's numbers, "that means we're working hard," said RCMP Supt. Nick Romanchuk, the officer in charge of policing at Kelowna.
"We are very proactive and tenacious in our enforcement."
He said the RCMP didn't set out to target marijuana specifically, but instead undertook a crackdown on drug crime in general when faced with the highest overall crime rate in Canada in 2012.
"We believe by enforcing the drug laws we're able to knock down other types of crime," Romanchuk said.
After Kelowna, the second highest rate of charges for possession in 2014 per 100,000 population was in Gatineau, Que., with 188, followed by Sherbrooke, Que., at 163, Saskatoon, Sask., at 113, and Brantford, Ont., at 102 — all of them well above the national average of 79.
The data were released by Statistics Canada over the summer and track 34 metropolitan areas with a population of at least 100,000.
At the other end of the scale, after St. John's, the next lowest rates were in the Ontario cities of St. Catharines-Niagara at 17, Kingston at 20, Windsor at 22, and Thunder Bay at 24.
Not highest priority
"Possession of marijuana is probably not the highest on our radar but it is something that we have to enforce," said Supt. Marlene Jesso of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. Jesso leads the RNC's joint task force with the RCMP that was set up in 2013 to crack down on drugs and organized crime.
"We're laying charges on possession, but they're probably not the priority," she said. "We have to assess each file and then we'll decide at the time."
"If it's a person that's older, and they're caught with a joint or two, the paperwork alone is not something we would even deal with."
Jesso said she couldn't comment on why the number of charges per 100,000 population was lowest in St. John's.
She said the priority for drug enforcement has to be trafficking and organized crime.
"When you look at [police] drug sections across Canada, they're very inundated with drug investigations."
"You can't deal with every — a charge for every single possession that comes to you because we're just so busy with everything else," Jesso said.
Bill VanderGraaf, a retired Winnipeg police detective, is an activist pressing for legalization and regulation of marijuana.
He said the uneven rate of laying charges across the country is a problem.
"Some police departments are vigorously enforcing them, like the RCMP for example, and others are not. Others are turning a blind eye or simply disposing of the product and not laying charges," said VanderGraaf.
"We have to have consistency in something we're calling a crime. If there's not going to be consistency across this country then let's not call it a crime anymore. Let's control and regulate it," he said.
Simon Fraser criminologist Neil Boyd agrees.
"Police resources are expensive and scarce, and we're wasting them on this issue. There are more important things for our police force to be doing."
"The overwhelming majority who don't use cannabis should care that their tax dollars are being spent in this way and they should care about the hypocrisy of labelling someone a criminal for an act that really doesn't threaten the social fabric in any fundamental way," Boyd said.
"To treat a person who's using cannabis as a criminal — it's like using a sledgehammer for a flea," said Boyd.
Statistics Canada ranks offences from most to least serious in its crime severity index. Pot possession is the fourth least serious crime in Canada with only a few betting and gaming offences considered less significant.
Ticketing option proposed
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a resolution in 2013 calling for a change in the law to allow police to ticket people for simple possession of marijuana — 30 grams or less — rather than laying a criminal charge.
In March 2014, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said he asked his department to start working on a proposal for that, although he made it clear neither legalization nor decriminalization of marijuana was being considered.
"I do think that moving to a ticketing system is potentially of benefit," said Pamela McColl, a Vancouver board member of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada (SAMC), formed in 2014.
"I think it has a benefit in that it would be an immediate sanction to a youth. And youth, studies show, respond very well to sanctions that are immediate. If they think they're going to get in trouble right away, they may be deterred more. And I think that's a good thing," said McColl.
SAMC has stated it is against legalizing marijuana possession but also opposes saddling Canadians with a criminal record for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
"I guess it's just a continuous conversation over whether it should be legalized or not," said Supt. Jesso in St. John's.
"I personally don't want to see it legalized. I think it's opening up a can of worms, for sure."
But she said it's her opinion that police do need the option of ticketing to deal with possession cases.
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