Pubdate: Sat, 03 Feb 2018
Source: Daily Press, The (CN ON)
Copyright: 2018 Sun Media
Author: Jordan Press
Page: A5


Lawyers contemplate class action to push government into cannabis

OTTAWA - At Anthony Morgan's law office, the calls keep coming:
Parents of young black men hoping their son's marijuana possession
charge will be wiped clean when the country legalizes the drug this

The Liberal government has talked about granting amnesty for past
marijuana crimes, but isn't likely to move until after the new
cannabis regime comes into effect this summer.

For black communities across the country, that's not soon enough - and
frustrated lawyers in Toronto are now considering lighting a fire
under the feds with a class-action lawsuit.

"There are lawyers who are coming together to consider that as an
option if the government is slow," said Morgan, a lawyer with
Falconers LLP in Toronto.

"They (the Liberals) are going to have to respond - and it's probably
best that they respond internally and in a proactive way, as opposed
to a reactive way where much is spent on litigation to move this forward."

For black communities in Canada, amnesty would finally mark a break
from a troubled history with marijuana - one wrapped in stigmas,
stereotypes and shame that have left some feeling left out of the
federal cannabis debate. Morgan recently encapsulated those feelings
in a lengthy analysis published in the magazine Policy Options.

This week, to mark the beginning of Black History Month, leaders in
Ottawa began putting in their own words what the black community has
felt for years.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke about "tackling the systemic nature of
anti-black racism," including "discriminatory policing." Prime
Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a desire to take on the "very real
and unique challenges that black Canadians face."

Blacks make up 8.6 per cent of federal inmates, even though they
account for 3.5 per cent of the general population. In 2014, of the
almost 2,200 federal inmates with drug charges, 12 per cent were
black, said Robyn Maynard, author of the book Policing Black Lives.

Statistics, meanwhile, indicate the black community is no more prone
to drug use than any other. One study from 2002 found that black youth
in Toronto were less likely to use marijuana than their white

To illustrate the imbalance in how drug laws are enforced, Akwasi
Owusu-bempah, an assistant professor of sociology from the University
of Toronto, looks no further than the prime minister himself.

Trudeau admitted in 2013 to having used marijuana while a sitting MP,
and has talked openly about how his father, Pierre Trudeau, helped his
brother avoid marijuana charges.

"For people that don't have that privilege, lives have been harmed and
communities have been harmed," Owusu-bempah said.

A federal apology for "discriminatory and disparate treatment" is
called for, he added, alongside an amnesty for past marijuana offences.

Maynard, a Montreal-based activist, links the racial disparity in drug
charges to a long-standing narrative that has historically linked drug
use to black communities - particularly during the so-called "war on
drugs" in the 1980s and 1990s.

The resulting stereotype, she said, portrays black men as drug dealers
and black women as their couriers.

That stereotype has followed Morgan around since high school. He
recalls being a teenager, standing at a bus terminal and having random
people asking him for marijuana.

What he calls an "unfortunate rite of passage" for black men still
happens to him a couple of times a year.

"If you talk to enough black folks you'll see that's quite, quite
common," said Morgan, an expert on issues of racial justice.

Since introducing the Cannabis Act last April, Liberals have been
under pressure to devise an amnesty program to account for the
disproportionate effects that drug laws have had on minority

Last month, public safety minister Ralph Goodale said the government
was looking at the legal implications of amnesty, but refused to
provide a time frame.

Toronto MP Bill Blair, a former police chief who's now the
government's point person on the pot file, said the discussion to date
on pardons has focused on simple possession crimes, not

"Once we have put in a more comprehensive system of regulatory control
for the production and distribution of cannabis, that's an issue the
government will then, at that point in time, be able to turn its mind
to," he said Thursday after question period.

It makes no political sense for the Liberals to drag their heels on
wiping out criminal convictions for pot possession, said Toronto
lawyer Annamaria Enenajor.

An amnesty would be "something so easy and something so
compassionate," she added. "There's really no purpose for keeping
these records."

Greg Fergus, a Quebec MP who chairs the Liberal black caucus, has been
pushing his government to examine its cannabis policy through a racial

Should the government issue pardons for past convictions, officials
would have to figure out costs, determine who would be able to seek
pardons and determine "who has suffered from the disproportionate
number of convictions."

Amnesty needs to be part of a larger strategy, including helping black
Canadians who might be eligible for a pardon, said Liberal MP Celina

Ideas that have been floated include helping those with convictions
find work in the cannabis economy. Indeed, some companies are already
looking to employ people with experience in the illicit market.
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