Disproportionate Cannabis Possession Arrests for Blacks in Toronto

On July 6th, the Toronto Star published the results of an investigation which revealed a serious racial bias within the Toronto Police Service.

The data showed that between the years of 2003-2013, Black people with no history of criminal convictions were three times more likely to be arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana than White people of similar backgrounds.

The results of this news caught the attention of former Toronto Mayor John Sewell, who is now the coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC). Sewell subsequently released a memo to the Toronto Police Services Board:

Toronto Police Accountability Coalition

c/o Suite 206, 401 Richmond Street West,

Toronto ON

M5V 3A8

416 977 5097


July 13, 2017

To: Toronto Police Services Board

The Toronto Star reports that for a decade before 2014 (the latest data available), Toronto arrested three times as many Black people per capita as white people for simple possession of marijuana. The data used showed that all arrests were of individuals were with no previous involvement with the criminal justice system.

The same report shows Black people were more likely to be held without release, or with restrictive bail conditions.

There is no reason to believe that what occurred before 2014 is still not occurring.

The discrimination by Toronto police on the basis of race is reprehensible, as well as being contrary to law. The public needs assurances that Toronto police officers will no longer discriminate, and that if they do, they will be removed from service.

The Board and the service have ample policies against racial discrimination, but these policies are not reflected in practice. This must change – discriminatory activities must be punished by management, as occurs in other public agencies.

Racial discrimination by police has gone on for far too long. It must stop. The Board must take effective action to ensure it no longer occurs on a systemic basis and ensure it is punished when it occurs on an individual basis. The Board must act now to ensure racial discrimination does not continue and it must demand management makes the necessary changes.

Yours very truly,

John Sewell for Toronto Police Accountability Coalition.

Sewell meets regularly with the police about issues regarding law enforcement, and the Toronto Star piece was used as a catalyst to discuss the disproportionate arrests of minorities, as well as what can be done about it.

On Thursday, the meeting to address these issues finally took place.

“To me it’s just a straightforward case of racial discrimination,” said Sewell in an interview with Marijuana.com. “We found this previously in respect to the Toronto Police, that the number of arrests of Blacks are much higher generally, and here we had good data from The Star analyzing police records.”

Despite the police board having “all sorts of policies” to deal with systemic racism, the “policies are obviously not working because the practice is entirely different,” added Sewell.

Sewell suggested a remedy for this toxic situation, where police cannot lay charges on any individual without consulting a Crown Attorney first. “[This already]  happens in three different provinces, so I was suggesting that might be the model. But they have to do something, so that [police] aren’t charging people on the basis of the color of their skin.”

The three other Canadian provinces that don’t allow charges to be laid by police unless they have consulted with a Crown Attorney are Quebec, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia. The results of that practice have been effective. “It has substantially reduced the number of charges that are laid on a per capita basis by about 20 percent,” said Sewell.

Tyler James is the head of community outreach and strategy at the Eden Medicinal Society, which is a series of dispensaries in Ontario and British Columbia. He also happens to be a person of color who applied to speak at the meeting but was denied.

“My [request] for deputation was not accepted, because apparently there was a deadline of noon,” said James to Marijuana.com. “That wasn’t explicit on the public agenda for the meeting itself, nor on the Toronto Police Services website. There was no communication as to when there would even be a deadline for submissions.”

James denial for his request to speak presented a problem — not a single person of color was available to talk at a meeting that discussed the disproportionate arrests of Black people.

“I did [however] get the ear of Mark Pugash [director of corporate communications for Toronto Police] and he expressed to me that he would allow me to speak on behalf of people of color in future talks and even in private as well. So I would say there is some silver lining to it, although it would have been more advantageous if I had the ability to speak on this topic,” said James.

Regardless of how he provided his message, James was very clear that he wants to back up the Toronto Star data as being the actual truth of the situation on the street.

“The rate of cannabis arrests across Canada disproportionately targets people of color, because there’s an association that [we] consume more cannabis than other nationalities,” said James. “That has been disproven, but there still exists a stereotype that sadly some in the police force, not all, profile us as the problem.”

Cannabis activist Jodie Emery spoke at the meeting to add her point of view on how to address this issue of racial bias.

“I said that we need to help build respect for the law, and I do respect the law but only when it’s respectable,” she said in an interview with Marijuana.com. “We know that marijuana law enforcement unfairly targets people of color and people who are marginalized. When you continue to enforce these unjust laws, you breed contempt towards officers.”

Emery then outlined how she thinks law enforcement should tackle the problem. “I talked about how [police] could go ahead with lowest law enforcement priority, which means that every other criminal offense becomes a bigger priority than any marijuana-related offense.”

Marijuana.com reached out to Toronto Police Service via telephone for comment on the issue, but have not received any response.

The Toronto Star data outlines that from 2003-2013, there were 11,239 arrests of people of color who were charged with possessing up to 30 grams of cannabis. These people had no prior convictions, nor were they on parole or probation at the time. Most of those people arrested were released at the scene, but 15.2 percent of Black people were detained for bail hearings, compared to 6.4 percent of Whites.


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