In the interview in which we learned that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had smoked marijuana “five or six times” in his life, including at least once while he was an MP, there was this paragraph and quote attributed to Trudeau:
Trudeau hopes to have a serious discussion with policy experts about legalizing weed this fall. Canadian taxpayers spend more than $500-million a year on enforcement and punishment related to marijuana convictions, he said.
“We are talking about 475,000 people since Stephen Harper has become prime minister who have criminal convictions because of marijuana,” the Liberal leader said. “Those are lives ruined.”
That was in an interview published Aug. 22.
On Aug 23, the Canadian Press moved a file with the following line:
Trudeau said, … marijuana prohibition policy … costs law enforcement $500 million a year and has left 475,000 people with criminal records since the Conservatives took office in 2006.
Pundits and journalist accepted this figure of 475,000 criminal records as fact. Writing in the Cranbook, B.C. Daily Townsman on Aug. 29, columnist Alan Coulter repeats what Trudeau had just said, writing:
Prime Minister Harper and other governments are spending $500 million each year of your money on enforcement and punishment related to marijuana convictions. Since he became Prime Minister there have been 475,000 convictions related to marijuana.
My former colleague at The Hamilton Spectator, award-winning columnist Andrew Dreschel told his readers on on Aug. 30:
When Trudeau told Huffington Post Canada about his past use of pot by way of explaining his support for legalization, he noted about 475,000 people since Stephen Harper became prime minister have had criminal convictions because of marijuana.
There was commentary on Aug 29. in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal:
Mr. Trudeau noted that the cost of enforcing marijuana laws in Canada is roughly $500 million annually, and that 475,000 people have been convicted of crimes related to the drug since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office, observing: “Those are lives ruined.”
Those metrics really are shocking, and totally unnecessary.
In a television interview broadcast on Sept. 8 on CTV’s Question Period Trudeau was unequivocal in this exchange with interview Robert Fife what that “475,000″ figure was describing:
FIFE: All right. Now let me ask you what the prime minister has been saying about this. He says you’re talking about pot and he’s talking about the economy. He’s trying to paint you as sort of somebody who doesn’t care about the average concerns of Canadians.
TRUDEAU: Canadians are concerned about the $500 million a year we spend on needlessly prosecuting and going after pot users. Canadians are concerned about the 475,000 people who now have criminal records in the past years since Mr. Harper has taken power.
So is it true, as Trudeau has maintained on at least two occasions and as pundits and editorialists across the country have repeated, that 475,000 individuals earned criminal records for pot use since Stephen Harper became prime minister?
Nope. It’s complete fiction.
We asked Trudeau’s spokesperson about the source for Trudeau claim that 475,000 have criminal records from pot possession: Kate Monfette replied by e-mail: “The stats we are referencing refer to are arrests, not criminal records” or “criminal convictions.”
So why did Trudeau, at least twice, explicitly say they were criminal records? Don’t know. Follow-up e-mail to Monfette on that point has remain unanswered.
UPDATE: In any event, the day after asking Monfette about this, we had a chance to ask Trudeau himself, during his visit to the riding office of Emmanuel Dubourg, the new Liberal candidate in the Montreal riding of Bourassa. Trudeau has now changed his line: ”
“Over the past years, 475,000 have been arrested on marijuana possession and marijuana-related offences.”
That’s very similar to what it says on the Liberal Party of Canada web site, in its petition to end prohibition on pot use: ”Stephen Harper keeps fighting a failed war on drugs that has resulted in more than 475,000 Canadians being arrested on marijuana-related charges.”
So where did the party get their stats on “arrests” for marijuana-related charges?
Monfette, in her first e-mail to me says: “We use the Juristat (StatsCan) annual index of police-reported crimes to highlight the number of marijuana-related arrests in Canada since 2006.”
Problem again: The Juristat index reports “crimes” not arrests. So, again today, Trudeau and the party are using imaginary statistics.
Here is the data from those Juristat tables on “police reported crime”. Click through on the hyperlink in the “Year” to see the underlying Statscan table.
If you add up all the criminal incidents police reported for possession, production, trafficking and distribution of cannabis, you get 479,396. That’s pretty close to 475,000.
But again: Trudeau — and all those pundits — had been talking only about “convictions” or “criminal records” for “pot users”. Until today, when Trudeau started talking about 475,000 “arrests”.
In any event: The only dataset that has about 475,000 instances of anything is the dataset on number of crimes. I think we’d all agree that there can be many crimes for which no arrests occur. All we know from this report is the number of times a police officer indicated that a crime had been committed.
Is there a database for marijuana-related arrests? I’m not aware of one but that’s not to say one doesn’t exist.
We can go back to Juristat though and find out how many were charged (and, presumably, arrested), how many cases were cleared and — to go back to Trudeau’s original point — how many of the “police-reported crime” resulted in a “registered conviction” and a criminal record or cannabis possession or any other cannabis offence.
For that data, we turn to Statscan Table 252-0051: Incident-based crime statistics, by detail violations and extract data for “Cannabis Possession” and “Cannabis Production, Trafficking and Distribution.”
You can do the heavy lifting yourself by clicking through on that link but here’s the summary data I’ve prepared — all for the 7 years between Harper taking office in 2006 and the most recent year for which data is available, 2012. (I am using Statscan labels here for data):
- Actual incidents: 366,902
- Total cleared: 314,969
- Cleared by charge: 152,008
- Cleared otherwise: 162,961
- Total persons charged: 170,241
- Adults charged: 143,444
- Youth charged: 26,797
- Actual incidents: 112,983
- Total cleared: 65,667
- Cleared by charge: 53,722
- Cleared otherwise: 11,945
- Total persons charged: 74,839
- Adults charged: 66,488
- Youth charged: 8,351
As I mentioned, there is no data from Statscan or the police on the number of “arrests” in each of these categories. But we know the total number of people charged: 170,241 with possession and 74,839 with trafficking, etc. Presumably, many of those charged with trafficking, etc. also faced a possession charge.
But even if there was no doubling up or no individual was charged twice with the same crime over the seven years of this data set, the maximum number of individuals charged is 245,080. Remember: Trudeau’s original talking point is that 475,000 had “convictions” and/or “criminal records” because they were “pot users”.
Obviously, a “charge” precedes a “conviction” and a “criminal record”.
So where’s the data on those convictions?
Statistics Canada does maintain a database of Adult court cases by type of sentence but, sadly, the agency do not break down cannabis offences from all drug offences when it gets to tracking the charges through the court. Now cannabis offences do make up the vast bulk of all drug offences in this country.
Still, we can turn to Table 252-0056: Adult criminal courts, guilty cases by type of sentence to get a rough idea of how many end up with convictions and criminal records for the seven years from 2006 to 2012 (I’m sticking with Adult cases as opposed to youth cases because youth convicted of a drug offence will not have a criminal record and for our purposes we’re keen to find the number whose, to use Trudeau’s phrase, “lives are ruined” by a criminal record as a “pot user”):
All drug possession (including cannabis possession)
- Case results in finding of “guilty” for drug possession (including cannabis possession): 53,934
- Case results in finding of “guilty” for all other drug offences (trafficking etc): 31,316