Pubdate: Sun, 24 Jan 2021
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2021 The New York Times Company
Author: Ian Austen


OTTAWA - When Robert was 18, he was arrested by Montreal's police for
possession of a small amount of hashish, an event that would upend his
young life.

The charge brought him 30 days in jail, and the conviction ended his
part-time job as a translator.

"Back then, you smoke a joint, you would get arrested," said Robert,
who asked that only his first name be used because of the continuing
stigma of his criminal record. "Then the cops would put you in a car,
then pull over and give you a couple of shots in the head. You get
slapped around just because of smoking."

His arrest in 1988 as a teenager marked the start of a long, unhappy
history with Canada's legal system, with his first jail stint opening
up a new trade: burglary.

"It was like school," said Robert, who spent a total of 14 years
locked up, roughly divided between convictions on drug offenses and
thefts to buy more drugs. "I went there for smoking and then guys are
showing me how to open doors."

The recreational use of cannabis was legalized in Canada two years
ago, and when the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made its
legalization pitch to the country, it was stories like Robert's - a
life derailed by a possession charge - that most resonated with many

Legalization, the government vowed, would address the inequalities in
a criminal justice system where marijuana and hashish penalties and
prosecutions - and the lifelong burdens they impose - had fallen
disproportionately on marginalized communities, particularly Black
Canadians and Indigenous people.

That promise has largely been kept, with legalization essentially
ending what Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor of sociology at the
University of Toronto who studies race and policing in Canada, called
the "heavily racialized" arrests for marijuana possession.

But some other key promises, and hopes, that came with Canada being
the first industrialized nation to legalize marijuana remain

The for-profit industry it created has struggled. Pot sales outside
the legal system still thrive. Indigenous communities feel their needs
are being ignored. And the injustices that came from criminalizing pot
in the past have yet to be fully remedied.

As more of the United States legalizes marijuana, with voters in New
Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona this past November backing
recreational use, joining about a dozen other states, here's a look at
the Canadian experience two years into its national experiment.

WHAT WE FOUND An Emphasis on Fairness and Equality

Mr. Trudeau's pledge to legalize marijuana was not universally
welcomed by Canadians, including some members of his Liberal party,
who feared it would encourage use, particularly among teenagers.

But the prime minister persuaded his party, and many voters, with an
argument based on fairness and equality.

Mr. Trudeau illustrated the system's bias with a family story. In a
2017 interview with Vice, he said that his brother, Michel, was found
carrying a couple marijuana joints by the police in 1998, six months
before he was killed in an avalanche.

Their father, Pierre Trudeau, a former prime minister, came to the

"We were able to make those charges go away," Mr. Trudeau said. "We
were able to do that because we had resources, my dad had a couple
connections, and we were confident that my little brother wasn't going
to be saddled with a criminal record for life."

Legalization, he promised, would ensure that not just the connected
and wealthy could avoid a criminal record.

The new law has all but eliminated possession charges. In 2018, the
police recorded 26,402 possession cases until legalization went into
effect in mid-October. In 2019, that number dropped to 46, according
to Statistics Canada. (Possessing over 30 grams of marijuana remains

A report released in August by the Ontario Human Rights Commission
showed just how tied to race cannabis arrests had been before
legalization: An analysis of police data found that while Black people
made up 8.8 percent of the population of Toronto, they faced 34
percent of marijuana possession charges there between 2013 and 2017.

The police have lost one tool they once used, Professor Owusu-Bempah
said, "as a way of bringing certain marginalized populations into the
criminal justice system."

But how much change that's brought to the system as a whole is open to
question. While Canada is only starting to collect crime and police
data that includes race, several leaders from minority communities
continue to demand action against what they call systemic racism
within many police forces. Last June Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that
systemic racism is found in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the
national police force, and other law enforcement agencies.

What We Found 'I've Got So Much Against the System'

While decriminalizing marijuana possession is viewed as a step toward
building a fairer justice system, many charged under the old law are
still dealing with the devastating consequences, despite promises of

"We haven't reckoned as a country with the impact that drug
prohibition has especially had on Black Canadians," Professor
Owusu-Bempah said. "Unfortunately, too many of them are being left
with a criminal record."

The legalization effort came with an amnesty program the government
said would erase criminal records for possession, but there are
barriers to access.

The process, Professor Owusu-Bempah said, is both complicated - with
as many as six steps involved - and underpublicized, making it more a
privilege for the few than a widely available solution.

While there is no government statistic for the number of Canadians
with possession records, a 2014 report by the Center for Addiction and
Mental Health, a Toronto hospital and research center, put the figure
as high as 500,000.

As of mid-November, just 341 people had succeeded in erasing their
records. There are no fees, but applicants must frequently spend money
to travel to the place of their arrest to retrieve their records, and
they must be fingerprinted.

Even if Robert, who has lived in Vancouver the past 25 years, could
afford to return to Montreal, he says it wouldn't be worth it.
Removing the possession charges would not alter the theft convictions
that followed.

"I've got so much against the system," said Robert, who has stayed out
of jail the past decade and works for an overdose-prevention group.
"It made everything go out of my reach."

WHAT WE FOUND Indigenous Sellers Still in Legal Limbo

When marijuana was illegal in Canada, the Green Mile was a popular
place to buy it, with about a dozen mismatched shops along a stretch
of highway in Ontario offering every kind of cannabis product imaginable.

Two years after legalization, customers still come to these stores in
the Indigenous community of Alderville - although the sellers operate
outside the new system put in place to regulate legal sales.

"These people know what I'm looking for," said Jess Lihou, whose
one-hour drive to Maryjane's Cannabis Dispensary in the Green Mile was
justified, in her view, for two main reasons: price and selection.

The licensed retail chains "don't have enough options," Ms. Lihou
said: "And it's cheaper. So great deals and great people."

The provincial police in Ontario generally respect the sovereignty of
Indigenous communities and take enforcement action against shops like
those along the Green Mile only if requested by a community's leaders.

But the new system has been criticized for keeping these Indigenous
operations in a gray-market legal limbo, despite promises that
Indigenous people would be consulted and made part of the new system.

"Legalization happened so quickly that these issues of equity and
issues of sovereignty with respect to Indigenous people were not
properly addressed," Professor Owusu-Bempah said. "The government's
still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to do."

In Ontario, the provincial government is meeting with Indigenous
leaders about the shops, according to Jenessa Crognali, a spokeswoman
for Ontario's attorney general.

"The province remains committed to continued engagement with First
Nations communities interested in having provincially regulated stores
or in developing their own approaches to legal cannabis retail," Ms.
Crognali wrote in an email.

But with their legal status still unclear, the threat of being shut
down hangs over Green Mile shops.

"We're hopeful, but we've never been too confident," said Laurie
Marsden, a co-founder of one of the shops, Healing House, which
emulates the provincial system by running a lab that tests for potency
and contamination. "We believe in our sovereign rights and that we
have the ability to produce, grow and sell the medicines to our
customer base."

WHAT WE FOUND Profits, and Diversity, Hard to Find in Legal

When Mr. Trudeau announced his government's plans for legalization,
the creation of a major new source of jobs - or tax revenue - was not
in the program.

But investors envisioned tremendous business opportunities, as a
"green rush" swept the Toronto Stock Exchange and legal players
invested millions of dollars in supersized greenhouses.

Two years later, most marijuana producers are still reporting
multimillion-dollar losses.

And these companies' executives are overwhelmingly white, according to
an analysis by Professor Owusu-Bempah. It concluded that 2 percent of
the companies' leadership are Indigenous people and 1 percent are
Black Canadians.

"African-Canadians and other racialized Canadians that were adversely
affected by cannabis prohibition need to be given a chance to benefit
from the fruits of legalization," Professor Owusu-Bempah said. "We had
this situation where Black and Indigenous people were being overly
criminalized. Now they're being left out of what is a
multibillion-dollar industry."

'Not Just Going to Roll Over and Go Away'

In addition to a fairer legal system, the government promised
legalization would shift marijuana sales out of the black market,
parts of which are dominated by organized crime.

"By controlling it, by legalizing it," Mr. Trudeau said in 2018,
"we're going to ensure that criminal organizations and street gangs
don't make millions, billions of dollars of profits every year."

And the strict regulations governing legal sales, the prime minister
promised, would ensure that Canadians were consuming marijuana not
adulterated with other drugs or toxins and would eliminate sales to

The current pot scene in Vancouver is a good illustration of a promise
that still has a ways to go before being fulfilled.

The city once had more pot shops than Starbucks, with more than 100 at the 
peak. Now, there are about 19 unlicensed shops, along with 34 legal 
operators, numbers that broadly reflect the situation across Canada: Sales 
outside the legal system are shrinking but have not disappeared.

"The shift has started, and maybe around half the market has
transitioned from illegal to legal retail sources," said David
Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo in
Ontario who is heading a multiyear study on cannabis use.

With loyal customers and often a competitive advantage on price (with
no taxes to pay) and selection, the illegal shops are hanging on.

"They're not just going to roll over and go away," said Mike
Farnworth, the minister of public safety in British Columbia.

In its latest survey released just over a year ago, Statistics Canada,
the census agency, found that 28 percent of Canadians shopped for
marijuana exclusively at legal stores and websites, while 58 percent
used a mix of legal and illegal sources.

Shutting down the unlicensed stores has not been a priority amid an
opioid crisis: In British Columbia, from January through November
2020, 1,548 people died from overdoses.

For Canada's illegal growers, marijuana "is still a good business,"
said Detective Inspector Jim Walker, deputy director of the Ontario
Provincial Police's organized crime enforcement bureau.

But there are clear signs the legal domestic option is forcing gangs
to look elsewhere. The number and size of seizures of outbound
marijuana, said Mr. Walker, referring to pot headed to the United
States, "are growing exponentially."

THE TAKEAWAY: Legalization largely delivered on its promise for a more
equitable Canada, but has not eliminated unlicensed sales or brought
redress to many of those whose lives were handicapped by a conviction.

Tracy Sherlock contributed reporting from Vancouver, British Columbia.