Pubdate: Fri, 02 Aug 2019
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2019 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Chuka Ejeckam


The Canadian cannabis industry is booming.

 From giant industrial operations such as Canopy Growth to smaller
cannabis retailers, to an array of cannabis "lifestyle"=9D brands and
"cannabis brand consultancy"=9D firms, the industry is a lucrative fronti
for those seeking wealth in a rapidly growing market.

And oh, is there wealth to be had. Canadians spent $1.6-billion on
legal weed in 2018 - double the total spent on medical cannabis the
year before - despite the fact that non-medical cannabis was legally
available only after Oct. 17. Statistics Canadaa's National Cannabis
Survey from the first quarter of 2019 found that use of non-medical
cannabis has increased among men and people aged 45 to 64. The survey
reported that 646,000 people tried cannabis for the first time in the
prior three months, half of whom were aged 45 or older.

The non-medical cannabis market in Canada, too, is increasingly
treated like any other for-profit industry.

The Globe and Mail's reporting on CannTrust Holdings' unlicensed
production scandal reads like any other kind of corporate controversy,
with the language of alleged executive misbehaviour, market shares,
and intra-industry maneuvering. Cannabis is quickly becoming
mainstream, and - as is the norm for our capitalist society -
firmly corporate.

This is a failure.

As non-medical cannabis shifts from a criminal offence to a legal
commercial product, revenue from legal weed should be used to fund
meaningful reparations for communities targeted for decades by racist
drug laws and enforcement. However, even a surface-level analysis of
the rapidly growing cannabis industry in Canada reveals a troubling
trend: The profits and wealth being generated are overwhelmingly
landing in the pockets of white Canadians.

Racial inequities have quickly become fundamental in our legal
cannabis industry. Although these inequities have been discussed
frequently in the United States, that conversation has been slower to
develop in Canada. Analysis conducted by the Montreal Gazette in 2018
revealed that, of the top five producers and distributors of cannabis
in Canada - which have a combined market value of roughly
$16-billion - people of colour comprised only 3 per cent of their
management staff.

This mimics disparities in the United States; in 2017, 81 per cent of
U.S. cannabis companies were owned by white people, and overwhelmingly
white men. Women have been making advances in the industry, especially
with products that contain cannabidiol (CBD), but this has been
primarily true of white women.

"Equity permit"=9D programs are being pursued in some jurisdictions;
cities in California, in particular, have pursued measures that grant
first access to the legal cannabis market to individuals who are
low-income, have past cannabis arrests or convictions or live in
"disproportionately impacted areas."=9D But thus far, that strategy
has failed to address the domination of the legal market by people who
are generally most privileged and least affected by cannabis's
previous illegality. Equity permits notwithstanding, the legal
non-medical cannabis market continues to be exploited by firms more
focused on making money than earnestly seeking equity.

Racial disparities matter on the ground level of a burgeoning
industry, especially given how cannabis prohibition reproduced and
reinforced them. Indeed, drug-prohibition laws target black and
Indigenous people in Canada, and these groups make up an outsize share
of the more than 500,000 Canadians bearing cannabis-related criminal

They also account for a disproportionate number of street stops and
arrests, including when those interactions don't ultimately lead to
criminal charges, prosecution or conviction. Black and Indigenous
people in Canada are specifically targeted by police attention and
applications of force at every level of interactions, from carding to
incarceration. According to research by criminologist and University
of Toronto professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, cannabis has in fact been a
"gateway drug" not in the sense that smoking pot leads to use of other
drugs, but that cannabis prohibition has disproportionately been a
gateway to criminal status for black and Indigenous people, even though
cannabis use (and use of other drugs) is effectively equal among
different racial groups. In fact, some research has found that whites
are more likely to use and sell drugs but remain less likely to be
arrested, charged or incarcerated for those offences.

In her book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery
to the Present, activist, author and educator Robyn Maynard demonstrates
the deep-rooted systemic racism that animates the hyper-policing of
black Canadians. Ms. Maynard draws a line through Canadian history,
connecting the violent control and regulation of black and Indigenous
people through enslavement and colonization to the disproportionate
police attention, violence and criminal penalties applied to black and
Indigenous communities in Canada today.

She also contrasts that case against the lenient treatment of wealthy,
white Canadians at the hands of law enforcement. Although Canada likes
to imagine itself as a kinder, more humane country than its neighbour
to the south, the same racial inequities rampant in U.S. drug-law
enforcement are alive and well here - and so, too, is the same
reproduction of racial inequities that are so evident in the United
States' legal cannabis industries. These are a product of the
systemic problems upon which the industry was founded.

Writing on the emerging industry in advance of legalization, long-time
cannabis activist John Akpata noted the dimensions of racial inequity
and capitalist monopolization already visible in the non-medical
cannabis market.

Mr. Akpata argued that it would cost potential "licensed producers"
between $5-million and $10-million to meet the standards set by the
Trudeau government's regulations, prohibiting anyone other than large
corporate entities - or those who could access high-dollar corporate
financial backing - from seeking legal licensing. Given Canada's
entrenched racial inequities in wealth and income, this, too, has only
given an enormous advantage to white Canadians. In Ontario, for example,
studies have shown that racialized Ontarians experience higher rates
of poverty and unemployment than white Ontarians and are paid less when
they are employed.

Toronto vividly illustrates these inequities, with racialized
residents concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods while affluent
neighbourhoods are disproportionately white. Recent analysis found
that black Canadians make up 13 per cent of residents in low-income
neighbourhoods, despite accounting for 9 per cent of Toronto's
population. Conversely, white Canadians make up an overwhelming 73 per
cent of residents in affluent neighbourhoods - much higher than
their share of the city's population. These inequities are
reproduced in police attention and criminal penalties; analysis of
cannabis possession arrests for people without prior criminal records
in Toronto between 2003 and 2013 found that black people were arrested
at a rate nearly triple their share of the city's population.

Human-rights lawyer Anthony Morgan has noted how this targeting -
and popular associations between black people and drugs, including
(and perhaps especially) cannabis - increases the risk of
stigmatization that black people face in even speaking to the issue,
let alone whether they actively participate in the legal cannabis market.

While black and Indigenous people in Canada may incur social or
professional consequences, white politicians flock to the boards of
cannabis companies without fear for their reputation - including a
former police chief of Canada's largest city. There is perhaps no
higher-profile example of this racial and class-based inequity than
Justin Trudeau himself, a white man born into a wealthy and
well-connected family.

He has both admitted to illegally smoking cannabis while a sitting
Member of Parliament and spoken about how his father's connections
helped his brother Michel avoid charges for drug offences.

These inequities fly in the face of the fact that it was communities
of colour that introduced cannabis to popular culture in the United
States and Canada. At least since the Jazz Age, a collection of
prominent black and brown artists have incorporated the drug into
their artistic and cultural expressions. Law enforcement would later
exploit this fact to weaponize drug laws against communities of colour
- - again, even though drug use across racial groups is essentially
equal - giving quasi-cover to their decades of biased policing and
racial repression. But now, with the legalization of cannabis in
Canada, society primarily celebrates white Canadians and wealthy
"entrepreneurs"=9D for their involvement with the drug, while
communities of colour remain disproportionately policed, arrested,
prosecuted, incarcerated and burdened with criminal records.

The federal government had previously promised to waive the waiting
period and ease the pardon application process for Canadians with
cannabis-possession conviction records, and on Thursday, the Justice
Minister announced that these Canadians can now apply for pardons
online, free of charge.

That still feels wanting.

Critics of the legalization regime and process, including Cannabis
Amnesty - an advocacy group led by lawyer, author and educator
Annamaria Enenajor - have argued that pro-active expungement of
cannabis-related criminal records is necessary, as pardons don't
erase records.

Publicly funded reparations programs for loans, education and
employment also need to be part of the next steps, as they could begin
to repair the restricted life-course outcomes that result from a
criminal record.

Equity permits alone would not restore someone's options, as they
would still restrict them to working in the cannabis industry.

The government must also address the racial inequities in wealth and
profit being accumulated in the legal non-medical cannabis market.

Legal cannabis has rapidly become just another enterprise of
international capitalism, with wealthy investors and profiteers
exploiting what should be an equity-seeking policy to obfuscate
inequities, amass profit and further entrench racial and class

As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Solomon Jones wrote, "Blacks
create an industry that has value, whether through legal or illegal
means, and white folks change the rules, change the language, and
change the perception in order to bring about a change in
ownership."=9D Mr. Jones cites estimations that just 1 per cent of
those who possess legal licences in the United States to sell cannabis
are black. "That's no accident,"=9D he argues. "The industry is
structured that way."=9D

The very same thing is happening in Canada. We can choose not to let
the racial inequities so prevalent in our society be reproduced, once
more, in the legal cannabis market.

We can choose to rigorously pursue equity and reparations for decades
of disproportionate criminalization and economic impairment. We can
choose not to ignore the continued disproportionate accumulation of
wealth in privileged quarters.

But we must choose.

Chuka Ejeckam studies political science and public policy at the
University of British Columbia. His work focuses on drug policy and
inequality, the latter both political and economic.
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