Let's repair the harms of Canada's war on drugs. Trudeau’s drug czar, former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, has stated that pardons are off the table.
As we progress toward the legalization of pot, we must ensure that we work to repair the harms done to those most affected by almost a century of prohibition
By Akwasi Owusu-Bempah
Mon., July 10, 2017
The legalization of cannabis is a move forward for our country and sends a positive message to the rest of the world about a changing tide in the global war on drugs.
However, as we progress toward legalization, we must ensure that we work to repair the harms done to those most affected by almost a century of prohibition.
Justin Trudeau rose to power based, in part, on a promise to legalize cannabis after having publicly admitted to smoking weed while sitting as a Member of Parliament. Trudeau is certainly not alone in his fondness the drug. Survey data reveal that 11 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older have used it in the past year and over one-third admit to having done so at least once in their lifetime.
These high rates of use are, no doubt, part of the reason we are moving toward legalization. Another important factor is a recognition of the costs associated with criminalizing the drug – from law enforcement expenditures that could be better spent elsewhere to the harms inflicted on individuals who receive criminal records for minor possession.
Although perhaps not as well publicized as in the United States, Canada has been waging its own war on drugs for several decades. Over the past 15 years, for example, Canadian police agencies reported more than 800,000 cannabis possession “incidents” to Statistics Canada.
Importantly, as a series of stories in the Star has shown, despite similar rates of use across racial groups, racialized Canadians have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. In Toronto it is Black and Brown people who have been disproportionately criminalized, contributing further to the social marginalization they already experience.
At a time when individuals and businesses involved in the emerging cannabis industry stand to reap huge profits, and the government eyes the potential tax revenue, it is imperative that we do not forget the victims of Canadian drug prohibition.
Lessons from south of the border are instructive here as some American jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis are working to incorporate reparations and equity measures into law, policy and practice. There are three main areas that should be addressed: 1) pardoning the convicted; 2) social reinvestment of tax revenue from legal sales and; 3) incorporation of those affected by prohibition into the licit cannabis industry.
First and foremost, and perhaps automatically, pardons should be granted to those people who have received criminal records for minor cannabis possession offences and related administrative charges (such as failure to comply with the conditions of their bail or probation).
Trudeau’s drug czar, former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, has stated that pardons are off the table. This is troubling given that Blair has also acknowledged that Canada’s marginalized and racialized populations have been most harmed by prohibition, and his push to increase the practice of police carding in Toronto also appears to have increased the number of cannabis possession arrests in the city.
The marker of a criminal record has a host of negative consequences for those convicted, including diminished job and travel prospects. These factors impact not only the criminalized, but their families, communities and society as a whole.
If we are going to recognize that prohibition was wrong, we should also recognize that it was wrong to criminalize the actions of those apprehended by the police. California has done this. Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis in the state includes provisions to clear criminal records and to resentence or release those incarcerated for defunct cannabis offences.
Advocacy groups in the U.S. are also calling for a portion of tax revenues from legal cannabis sales to be reinvested in the individuals and communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
As we have seen, cannabis laws have not been enforced equally. Identifying the appropriate individuals and neighbourhoods would be quite simple, using conviction records to identify people and aggregate data to identify neighbourhoods or city blocks. Some examples of where the funds might be directed include: education; health care; social programming; community infrastructure; and jobs and skills training.
Finally, we need to ensure access to the legitimate market for those most harmed by prohibition. Whereas the vast proportion of people incarcerated for cannabis offences in the U.S. came from Black and Latino communities, these groups have been systematically shut out of the emerging legal markets. This is clearly unjust. There are many possible means of remedying this situation, including preferential access to licences required to cultivate and distribute cannabis.
There is a lot of work left to be done before legal recreational cannabis is readily available in this country. As our government works to finalize the details of the legislation, it should ensure that it does right by the victims of its war on drugs.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto.