Pubdate: Tue, 11 Jul 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Page: A10


By this time next year, if all goes to plan, using marijuana for
recreational purposes will be legal in Canada.

At the same time, it's becoming clearer by the week that Ottawa must
take two additional steps to make sure we don't perpetuate the damage
done by our outdated drug laws.

First, the federal government should immediately decriminalize the
possession and use of small quantities of marijuana. And second, it
needs a plan to make it easier for the many thousands of people
convicted under the present law to obtain a pardon and wipe their
record clean.

Decriminalization should come first. It would prevent even more people
from being charged under the existing law and ending up with a
criminal record for doing something the government has already said
should be legal.

At the moment, the Trudeau government is sending out a contradictory,
even incoherent message to the two million-plus Canadians who use pot
for non-medical reasons.

On the one hand, it's only a matter of months now before possessing
and using up to 30 grams of cannabis will be legalized. The government
has made a persuasive argument that legalization is the best way to
take the marijuana trade out of the hands of criminals and make it
subject to strict government regulation.

On the other, police can still arrest and charge anyone caught with a
joint in their pocket. The courts are still clogged with thousands of
petty pot charges and users are still at risk of ending up with a
damaging criminal record.

Decriminalizing personal pot use now would end that. Police could hand
out tickets and fines rather than having to go through the cumbersome
process of arresting users and laying criminal charges.

At the same time, the government must address how it's going to deal
with the enormous backlog of people who have been convicted in past
decades for simple possession of marijuana.

They can face a range of problems in obtaining jobs, travelling
outside the country, or in future dealings with police - all for doing
something the government is now in the process of making as
unremarkable as buying and consuming a bottle of wine.

At the moment, a person convicted of simple possession can apply for a
pardon (officially called a "record suspension") after five years. But
that can be costly and cumbersome, requiring legal help and hundreds
of dollars just for processing fees.

The government should streamline the entire system and consider some
form of general amnesty to cover the thousands of people who have past
convictions for simple possession.

This is all the more pressing given the clear evidence that current
pot laws have penalized Black people disproportionately.

An investigation by Jim Rankin, Sandro Contenta and Andrew Bailey in
the Star over the weekend found that Black people with no criminal
record have been three times more likely to be arrested by Toronto
police for pot possession than have white people with similar

Simply put, while Black people formed 8.4 per cent of Toronto's
population in the 2006 census, they accounted for 25.2 per cent of
arrests for possession. White people were arrested almost exactly in
proportion to their share of the population.

On the face of it, the figures show that Black people have been
singled out for harsher treatment under current drug laws. Even though
there's no evidence they use pot more than anyone else, they have been
much more likely to be arrested, charged and subjected to all the
penalties that come with a permanent criminal conviction.

All the more reason, then, for the government to make sure that such
past injustices are not left untouched once simple possession is
legalized by July 1 of next year.

So far the government has been sending out mixed signals. It has said
there are no plans for a general amnesty, but its point man on the
issue, Toronto MP Bill Blair, has called the disproportionate impact
of drug laws on minority communities "one of the greatest injustices
in this country." Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself has talked
about the "fundamental unfairness" of the present system.

Those are fine words. It's time for the government to back them up
with actions that will correct past injustices as well as reforming
current laws.
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