How Does Law Enforcement Know Your Cannabis Is Legal? Keep Your Receipt

law enforcement legal cannabis
(tirc83/iStock)

Suppose you are walking through town and are stopped by the police. For whatever reason, you consent to a search. Among the items they find is a small amount of legally obtained cannabis. One of the cops asks you for a receipt from the cannabis store or some other proof that the cannabis in your possession was actually obtained legally. You can’t remember where your receipt is, maybe you threw it away. So, the cops charge you with possession and you’re looking at up to six months less a day behind bars and up to a $5,000 fine.

Can’t happen here, right? But it has.

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Just before two in the morning on October 22, a pair of Quebec City police officers spotted a car turning from Robert Bourassa Boulevard onto Laurier Boulevard without its lights on. Suspecting the driver to be impaired, the police pulled the car over. The 40-year-old driver—a man from nearby Lévis whose name has not been released—was given a roadside coordination test and searched. He was charged with a number of offenses and his car was seized.

One of those charges stemmed from the man’s inability to produce proof that the cannabis in his possession was obtained legally. The amount the suspect had, it should be noted, was in excess of Quebec’s 30-gram limit.

“With the eye, we can’t distinguish (legal cannabis from illegal)… A casserole is a casserole.”
Claude Rouillard, neuropharmacology professor at Université Laval

While it might seem excessive, it is the law. According to the Quebec Cannabis Act: “in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the transportation of cannabis without a bill of lading indicating the names and addresses of the shipper and the receiver constitutes proof that it is intended for delivery in Québec”—which police forces are interpreting as meaning if you don’t have documentation from the Société Québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), your cannabis is illegal.

Yeah, they mean it. “So that people do not have to worry,” said Étienne Doyon, public relations officer for the Service de police de la Ville de Quebec (SPVQ), “keep either proof of purchase or the original packaging.”

Still, police and lawyers tell Leafly that it would be nearly impossible to make such a charge stand up in court. The fact is that cannabis looks like cannabis and smells like cannabis, and it’s hard to determine exactly which cannabis came from where.

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“With the eye, we can’t distinguish (legal cannabis from illegal),” said Claude Rouillard, a neuropharmacology professor at Université Laval. “A casserole is a casserole.” Indeed, legal experts scoff at the idea that law enforcement officers can tell the difference between legal and illegal cannabis. “The police certainly can’t taste it,” said Montreal criminal attorney Alexandra Longueville.

Rouillard did, however, note that it would be possible to determine if the cannabis in question is one of the strains carried by the SQDC, but it would require intricate laboratory testing at great cost. While Quebec has the harshest cannabis laws in Canada, it also has a long history of avoiding or abandoning very expensive court cases, as when 36 Hells Angels facing hundreds of charges were allowed to walk in 2015.

The idea that the crown would send a small amount of cannabis to be forensically analyzed to determine its origin in order to lay a simple possession charge is simply not very likely.

However, police appear to be eager to charge people who give even the slightest indication that their cannabis was not legally obtained. “Police officers will arrest people in possession of illegal cannabis if, by facts, by observations or by any information collected, they have established reasonable grounds to believe that it is illegal cannabis,” said Doyon.

Since legalization is still in its infancy, confusion over the laws and their enforcement is overwhelming. Longueville called the current environment “vague.” Issues such as the transfer of legal cannabis from one adult to another—like a gift—have not been broached.

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Of course, it is always up to the crown to prove any illegal act, which could make the section of the Quebec Cannabis Act that refers to proving provenance impossible to prosecute in court.

Still, if you are in Quebec, it would be prudent to retain any receipts, original packaging and other evidence that the cannabis in your possession was obtained legally at the SQDC. Do not submit to any searches unless legally required to do so, and—as is always a good idea—keep your mouth shut around law enforcement officers.