Toronto cops are disproportionately charging black people for marijuana possession

Toronto cops have been arresting black people for cannabis possession at significantly higher rates than white people, a new report shows.

Police data from 2003 to 2013 analyzed by the Toronto Star reveals that black people who had previously not be convicted of any crimes were three times more likely to get arrested for possessing small amounts of cannabis than white people in the city with similarly clean criminal histories.

It confirms what many legal experts and cannabis advocates have long said about the unequal ways that racialized individuals are disproportionately targeted by drug laws. And it adds to previous data from the Star that showed the Toronto cops were 3.2 times more likely to carry out “carding” or street checks against black people than white people.

A third of 40,635 marijuana charges in Toronto from 2003 to 2013 were against black people.

According to the cannabis arrest data, Toronto police officers noted the skin colour of 11,299 people without prior convictions they arrested for possession less than 30 grams of pot. The police recorded that 25.2 percent of those arrested were black, 15.7 percent were brown, 52.8 percent were white, and 6.3 percent were noted as “other” in the race category.

The Toronto Star pitted those percentages against the 2006 general census, and found that a disproportionate number of black people, who made up only 8.4 percent of the population then, were being arrested for pot possession based on the population. The pot possession arrest rates for white people without criminal convictions — again, 52.8 percent — were pretty much in line with the fact that they made up 53.1 percent of the city’s population in 2006.

Further, a third of 40,635 marijuana charges in Toronto from 2003 to 2013 were against black people — including possession of less than 30 grams and possession for the purpose of trafficking.

In response to the Star story, the Toronto police told the newspaper that it’s “misleading” to compare their data to that found in the census. When VICE Canada reached out to Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash for comment on the Star story, he replied that he couldn’t provide any “because I haven’t read it.”

For Melayna Williams, director of the Rights for Advocacy Coalition for Equality (RACE) based in Toronto, it’s important to view this data in the broader context of how people of colour are disproportionately targeted and harmed in the criminal justice system.

“Some comfort in seeing that data confirms these lived experiences”
“Communities that are overly policed are going to be disproportionately targeted in a system that is flawed inherently,” said Williams. “It’s always the same bodies being targeted.”

She added there is “some comfort in seeing that data confirms these lived experiences” and expressed hope it would fix institutional problems.

It’s unclear how many of the cannabis possession charges laid by Toronto police resulted in any conviction, as courts do not disclose or collect race-based data. However VICE News reported this week that the vast majority of cannabis-related drug charges laid by the Toronto police during recent mass dispensaries raids were dropped by the time they ended up in court.

A number of legal experts and cannabis advocates have been calling on the Liberal government to pardon Canadians who have been convicted for pot possession as the substance is to be legalized for recreational use in less than a year. The government has been cagey on the issue, although it has said it would review the matter after legalization comes into effect.

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