Ottawa is making a hash of policing priorities

Rona Ambrose and the federal government do not want you to use marijuana - medicinally or otherwise. They've been quite clear on that.

Rona Ambrose and the federal government do not want you to use marijuana – medicinally or otherwise. They’ve been quite clear on that. However, among governments in Canada, the federal Conservatives are finding themselves more and more alone in being strongly committed to using public resources to accomplish that goal.

The federal government’s latest dustup on the subject of illegal drug use has been with the City of Vancouver, which recently moved to regulate the marijuana “dispensaries” that have been popping up all over the city. Operating under the guise of providing medicinal marijuana, the loose standards employed by many of these businesses as to what qualifies as a “medicinal use” suggest that they are more about recreation than anything else. Dispensaries have now boldly established themselves throughout the city – now reportedly outnumbering Tim Hortons – while thumbing their noses at Ottawa and its “laws” in the process.

The Vancouver Police Department has indicated that it has no interest in busting up these operations. It says that it has more important things to do.

The only problem with that is it leaves a regulatory grey area. Business needs some regulation – especially businesses geared towards marketing intoxicants – so the City of Vancouver has stepped in and done something legally mind-bending, by setting some ground rules for selling something that is technically illegal.

In doing so, the city has raised the ire of the federal government which is “deeply disappointed” about the decision which it says “represent(s) Justin Trudeau’s vision for Canadian neighbourhoods from coast to coast to coast”.

The conscious decision of the Vancouver Police Department to stop enforcing the law is an interesting development. Under the Canadian Constitution, the federal Parliament has the sole jurisdiction to create criminal law, and as such the City of Vancouver (or the province of British Columbia for that matter) would have no authority to change the law.

But provinces – and by delegation municipalities – have the authority to create their own police forces. And it is not just big cities that have municipal police services in Canada. Camrose, Alta., Altona, Man., and Miramichi, N.B. – all communities of less than 20,000 people – have seen fit to take policing into their own hands.

Outside of specific municipalities, the largest provinces handle policing in rural areas as well. The Ontario Provincial Police, and the Surete du Quebec police the province in those areas that don’t have a municipal police force. Alberta has from time to time threatened to create its own force.

Much of Canada is policed by the RCMP, but not as a “federal” police service. When the RCMP enforces the law in the Yukon, for instance, they are technically doing the job of the territorial government. The RCMP has a contract with the Yukon government – the Yukon Territorial Police Services Agreement – to provide policing services in the territory.

The situation in Canada contrasts with the United States, where just about every small community has a local police force. Yukoners may have noticed on their excursions that even small Alaskan communities like Skagway and Haines have local police departments. This probably reflects the fact that in the U.S. much of the criminal law is created by state governments and there is no “national” police force.

Which of these systems works better is a matter of debate. Having a large national police force obviously provides for an economy of scale and better opportunities for coordination, and smaller police forces are not without their problems.

But perceptions about crime have a very local dimension to them and the priorities of law enforcement – which can’t do everything – have a significant influence on the local community. A local police force allows a community greater freedom to determine for itself what merits its attention.

Under the Yukon Territorial Police Services Agreement, the territory’s justice minister has the power to “set the objectives, priorities and goals” of territorial policing, and has a right to be consulted about the appointment of the commanding officer. But a significant amount of control remains with the federal government, and it would be difficult to implement the kind of police force “civil disobedience” here that we are seeing in Vancouver.

Which is too bad. I must say that whenever I see a story in the local news about the RCMP showing off its latest marijuana bust I find myself unimpressed. This is, after all, a community with above average rates of violent crime, essentially non-existent traffic enforcement (I’m getting the sense that the number of people driving while texting on their cell phone in Whitehorse now probably exceeds the number who are not), and recently a spate of vandalism and theft.

That any resources are still being devoted to this futile cause because Stephen Harper and Rona Ambrose are still watching reruns of Reefer Madness in far-away Ottawa reflects why criminal law needs a local dimension and inspires envy of those communities – like the City of Vancouver – with the financial means to set their own priorities.

In any event, as nice as it would be to tell Ottawa to stuff it, the cost sharing offered by the federal government when use its police force are probably just too generous to pass up. This means that any move towards local law enforcement at this point in time is nothing but a – pun intended – pipe dream.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.