Pubdate: Thu, 03 Aug 2017
Source: NOW Magazine (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 NOW Communications Inc.
Author: Neil Price
Page: 12


Time to redress the harm done to thousands of Black youth who have
life-limiting criminal records because of pot

The war on drugs has had a devastating and disproportionate effect on
racialized groups, particularly young Black men.

While research has shown that Black people partake in recreational pot
at the same rates as their white counterparts, it's Black people who
have endured the heavy hand of justice. Black people are twice as
likely to be taken to a police station after being charged for simple
possession of marijuana. They are also twice as likely to be held
overnight for a bail hearing.

Those are just two examples of how racism has underpinned the state's
failed war on drugs, a failure that has resulted in countless Black
youth being criminalized for doing what 20 per cent of the Canadian
population does mostly unfettered.

As the federal government prepares to legalize recreational cannabis
next year, former politicians, lawyers, prime ministers and senior
police officers have lined up to cash in as investors and advisors to
licensed medical marijuana producers.

Of course, the guys I grew up with who sold the stuff on the street
are burdened with criminal records and other problems and don't stand
a chance in the legalized industry.

What exactly are the various levels of government planning to do to
redress the harm done to thousands of Black youth who have received
life-limiting criminal records due to recreational pot? More
specifically, how will profits from the projected $23-billion industry
be diverted to those most adversely affected by bad drug policy?

As University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah
points out in a recent Toronto Star op-ed, cannabis possession has
given police a broad pretext to probe further into the lives of Black
youth more so than any other criminal offense. Combined with carding,
this has meant possession charges become the leading "gateway" to
criminal records that affect the mobility, employment and quality of
life prospects of countless Black people, writes Owusu-Bempah.

Despite growing calls for "pot-equity," federal cannabis czar, Bill
Blair, Toronto's former police chief (and proponent of carding), has
been silent on the equity issue, saying only that the federal
government will look at the possibility of granting pardons after
legalization comes into effect. As it stands, those convicted of
marijuana-related offenses, with the exception (maybe) of minor
offenses, would currently not qualify to become licensed producers.

But pardons are only one part of a just and equitable cannabis
legalization framework. What's needed is a comprehensive strategy that
ensures people have options.

An equity-based approach to legalization would include financial,
government and educational initiatives that share the same purpose and

Banks, for example, which will no doubt benefit from the legal pot
economy, could create low-interest loan programs.

Government could reinvest cannabis-generated tax revenues into
community programs that provide harm-reduction and prevention programs
where they're needed.

And the post-secondary education sector, particularly colleges, could
play a huge role in training those interested in studying cannabis
cultivation and business start-up through customized programs. These
are just a few ideas that are being discussed in the Black community.
But it's troubling that we're not hearing them come from government.

Anne McLellan, who chaired the federal Task Force on Cannabis
Legalization and Regulation, says that the provinces will have to
decide whether equity approaches are included in any future

"I have spoken publicly about my belief that a conviction for simple
possession should not automatically deny someone the opportunity to
apply for a federal license to become a licensed producer," she tells
NOW. Her report does discuss the importance of the Government of
Canada consulting with Indigenous communities about both opportunities
and challenges after legalization.

Other jurisdictions have tackled this issue head on.

With the passing of California's Proposition 64, which legalized
recreational cannabis use in 2016, Oakland ushered in an Equity Permit
Program, which ensures that people who have criminal records due to
cannabis possession are given preferential treatment when applying for
permits to sell the drug legally. The program sets aside 50 per cent
of the city-issued licenses to those affected by drug laws,
effectively giving yesterday's street corner pot dealer a fairer
chance at becoming tomorrow's cannabis entrepreneur.

This wasn't exactly a popular idea, but then again equity-seeking
social policies never are. The biggest pushback to Oakland's program
came predictably from business groups already established in the
city's cannabis industry. They view the equity program as a direct
threat to their bottom line and have been vocal in wanting to see its
scope limited if not entirely reversed.

And it's not just retail opportunities that are at stake. What about
the other spin-off businesses that stand to benefit from cannabis
legalization? Does anyone at Toronto's city council have what it takes
to lead on that front?

Mayor John Tory wants in on the pot action. He wrote Ontario Premier
Kathleen Wynne recently detailing how he'd like the city's coffers to
grow via a special pot levy. But he doesn't seem particularly
interested in equity, and is focused instead, says his director of
communications Don Peat, on issues like rules around smoking in
public, enforcement and proximity of retail marijuana outlets to
schools and community centres.

Human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan says government should be thinking
more broadly about how to realize equity-focused responses to
legalization. He wants to see cannabis-generated revenues set aside to
help young people access opportunities beyond the cannabis industry.

"This is a multi-systemic issue," says Morgan. "Our responses also
have to be multi-systemic."

Morgan believes civil society and Black activists have key roles to
play. He's not convinced we will see an equity approach without their

Meanwhile, everyone else is already swooping in to make a killing.

Neil Price is a doctoral student at OISE and author of the Community 
Assessment of Police Practices (CAPP) report on carding.
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