Pubdate: Mon, 10 Jul 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Author: Akwasi Owusu-Bempah
Page: A11


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 for the drug. Survey data reveals 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.

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Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is an assistant professor in the Department of 
Sociology, University of Toronto.
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