Pubdate: Sat, 20 Jan 2018
Source: Truro Daily News (CN NS)
Copyright: 2018 The Daily News
Page: A4


The Trudeau government's decision to legalize marijuana was a welcome
and overdue acknowledgement of what has in recent decades become a
truism of both the health and justice fields: treating pot-smokers as
criminals is a costly, dangerous mistake.

The government is right that the prohibition on pot has driven up the
cost of policing, contributed to a national crisis of court delays,
compounded racial and class inequities and unnecessarily criminalized
people for doing something that by and large poses little threat to
them or others - all without delivering the promised benefits for
public health or public safety.

Yet, on the question of what to do about the victims of this unjust
and outgoing law, the government has failed to apply the same sound
logic that informed its decision to pursue legalization. If drug users
should not be treated as criminals, then the tens of thousands of
Canadians who have criminal records due to convictions for pot
possession, and whose prospects have been thus constrained, should
receive amnesty and a second chance.

Until last week, the government seemed to disagree, suggesting that
Canada's slow and costly pardon system was a sufficient mechanism for
redress. But in a welcome shift, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale
said during a recent Liberal cabinet retreat that the government is
now considering the possibility of amnesty for those convicted of
simple possession. That's the right move.

In 2016 alone, 17,733 people were charged with possession of pot.
Those convicted received criminal records that can affect job
opportunities, foreign travel, even citizenship - punishments that far
outweigh the transgression and which increase the likelihood of
future, more serious criminality. Moreover, those subject to such
disproportionate punishments are disproportionately people of colour,
Indigenous people and people living in poverty.

Black people in particular have been victimized by the misguided war
on pot. While they comprised 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. There's no evidence that Black people
use more pot than anyone else, yet they have been much more likely to
be arrested, charged and subjected to the serious penalties that come
with a permanent criminal conviction.

This is why Bill Blair, the government's point person on pot, has
called the impact of the prohibition on minority communities "one of
the greatest injustices in this country." It's why Justin Trudeau
decried the "fundamental unfairness" of the current system.

Yet those caught up in this unfair system have little recourse. At the
moment, a person convicted of simple possession can apply for a pardon
(officially called a "record suspension") after five years. But the
pardon system is in dire need of an overhaul. It can be costly and
cumbersome, requiring legal help and hundreds of dollars just for
processing fees. In any case, those who continue to suffer because
they were convicted under this law should not have to seek a pardon at

The government is right to put a blanket amnesty back on the table.
However, in doing so, it has also underscored how silly its opposition
to another policy is: the immediate decriminalization of possession.

In the months until the pot legislation is passed, the government will
spend an enormous amount of money, require considerable police
resources and continue to clog up an overburdened court system
pursuing thousands of prosecutions for pot possession, even though it
plans eventually to grant amnesty to all those convicted. That makes
no sense.

The government should be commended for recognizing the sound logic of
legalization, but it has so far failed to broadly apply that logic.
Ottawa should decriminalize pot now and offer amnesty to those
convicted of simple pot possession. Governments were wrong to treat
pot-smokers like criminals; they ought to start making amends.
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