As Canada stops treating cannabis as a ‘social evil,’ police look to ‘culture change’ in enforcement


The Star | Published: Wed., Oct. 17, 2018


Customers smell samples of cannabis at the opening of a legal cannabis store in Edmonton on Wednesday. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press)


Alyshah Hasham Courts Reporter
Wendy Gillis Crime Reporter


Police unions are fighting to loosen policies prohibiting recreational use of cannabis for officers. Former officers have transitioned into jobs in the cannabis industry. Medical marijuana is increasingly being touted as an effective treatment for illnesses that affect police officers such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The journey to cannabis legalization has already changed some police perspectives on pot but for many, the transition is still ongoing.

It was apparent at a recent workshop discussing cannabis legalization that officers still have questions, said Joe Couto, director of government relations and communications with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP). Not about the application of the new law — there’s been significant training in that respect, Couto said — but about the bigger picture: “how do you handle a significant social change?”

“Cannabis is something that, for many officers — particularly those who have been on the job for a long time — has always been regarded as an illegal substance and it has a certain stigma,” Couto said.

Suddenly, officers have to treat cannabis as a controlled product rather than a “social evil,” he said — “it’s a bit of a culture change that’s required.”

Vancouver’s police chief Adam Palmer, also the current president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, notes that support for recreational cannabis legalization is strong in Canada.

“Police officers are a subset of the population so you will have some police officers I’m sure just as you have in the general public that will be opposed to legalization, you’ll have a lot of police officers just like the general public who are fine with it,” he said.

“It’s like anything with law enforcement, people might have personal views but they know what the laws are.”

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said that police have now long been accustomed to medical marijuana users. That, along with a change in focus from possession to organized crime and major trafficking, is easing the transition, he says.

Many police officers may welcome legalization as an end to protests and confusion over the state of law, he says. Stamatakis, who is based in Vancouver, says police attitudes toward marijuana consumption have been more relaxed on the West Coast compared to other parts of the country, but that in turn presents challenges around transitioning the entrenched marijuana economy into a legal one.

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