Can Canada undo 'injustice' of cannabis possession convictions?

Published in Al Jazeera on May 10, 2018

Montreal, Canada - Annamaria Enenajor says it's about righting a wrong.

The Toronto-based lawyer is among a group of other professionals and activists leading a campaign to get the Canadian government to grant amnesty to those with simple cannabis possession convictions on their records.

With Canada planning to legalise recreational marijuana by July 1, amnesty would address an "historic injustice" that has affected hundreds of thousands of people across the country, Enenajor said.

"We find it particularly unjust because we know that the individuals who are most impacted by the criminalisation of cannabis are people who are vulnerable members of society and marginalised and racialised members of society," she told Al Jazeera.

Launched earlier this month, the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty wants the federal government to grant a blanket pardon to Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession.

It hopes to get 5,000 signatures on an online petition to get the government to enact amnesty legislation.

Having their convictions expunged would help members of already disadvantaged communities - especially black and indigenous people - find better jobs, access social services and social housing, and travel freely, Enenajor said.

However, in its current form, the bill to legalise recreational cannabis in Canada does not address amnesty for past convictions.

"It shows that the impacts that decades of criminalisation has had on individual lives are really an afterthought for the government - and it should be front and centre," Enenajor said.

'Once the law is enacted'

So far, Ottawa has said it plans to examine the issue of amnesty only once the law is changed.

The recreational use of cannabis is expected to be legal countrywide this year under Bill C-45, which passed a second reading in the Senate in March and was sent to committees for further study.

The bill sets out broad rules to regulate the recreational cannabis industry, including what companies have licences to sell cannabis products, and makes it legal for adults to possess and share up to 30 grams of cannabis.

Canada's provinces and territories will be tasked with implementation; they will control how and where cannabis is sold and how many marijuana plants each resident can legally have at home, among other things.

Speaking to reporters in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that Canada's current system "is hurting Canadians and criminalising Canadians who perhaps shouldn't be".

"But that is an engagement we will take once we have a legalised and controlled regime in place, not before," Trudeau said.

That was echoed by a spokesperson for Canada's public safety minister.

Canada's current law on cannabis "has proven to be an abject failure", Scott Bardsley told Al Jazeera in an email, but the government intends to take its time "to make this change in an orderly, coherent way".

"In the meantime, the existing law remains in place. We're working assiduously to get the job done," Bardsley said.

Right now, a person convicted of possessing up to 30 grams of cannabis can apply to the Parole Board of Canada for a criminal record suspension five years after completing his or her sentence.

"Once Bill C-45 is enacted, we will examine how to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted for minor possession offences," Bardsley said.

Racialised communities

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto, said racialised and impoverished communities have borne the brunt of Canada's "war on drugs" for decades.

"Policing itself is generally concentrated in more impoverished and highly racialised neighbourhoods, and so even though rates of cannabis use are high across different demographic groups, it's those people … who have been disproportionately harmed," he told Al Jazeera.

Last year, the Toronto Star published an investigation into marijuana arrests in Toronto, Canada's largest city, between 2003 and 2013.

The newspaper found that cannabis charges disproportionately affected black people; while only making up about eight percent of the city's population, 34 percent of the more than 40,600 cannabis possession charges were filed against black people.

Also in Toronto, cannabis arrests increased just as police ramped up a practice called "carding", in which officers would stop and document people who were not suspected of committing any crime, Owusu-Bempah explained.

The practice is "a form of racial profiling", he said.

In the US, carding - which has since been outlawed in Toronto, but has been documented across Canada - more commonly goes by the name "stop-and-frisk".

Police are also more likely to formally process racialised people through the justice system if they are found with cannabis, rather than give them a simple warning, Owusu-Bempah said.

While most of the nearly 11,300 people without prior convictions were released when police found them with small amounts of marijuana in their possession, 15.2 percent of black people were detained for a bail hearing, the Star reported.

Only 6.4 percent of white people were similarly detained.

"Providing those pardons I think does do something to start correcting those wrongs - and this harmed not just individuals, but their families, of course, as well as their entire communities," Owusu-Bempah said.

"We should, in recognising the failure of the war on drugs, also recognise the harm that we've done to certain segments of our population and set an example to the rest of the world by … working to redress those harms."

Removing barriers

Most Canadians apparently back amnesty, as well.

Six in 10 people (62 percent) said they support or somewhat support pardoning people with cannabis possession charges, according to a May 2017 survey commissioned by The Globe and Mail newspaper.

But advocates say Canada needs to go further than just amnesty; some argue that citizens who have been most harmed by the country's drug laws should be given ways to join the burgeoning, legal cannabis market.

Matthew Green, a city councillor in Hamilton, Ontario, just west of Toronto, said the way Canada has set up the system thus far will lead "to the continued criminalisation" of working-class or racialised communities.

US Marijuana: Pot luck or politics?

The government has prioritised giving big pharmaceutical companies and others with ties to the political class a foothold in the billion-dollar industry, Green said, while many others remain shut out.

"Why is it that some people in working-class and racialised communities will be criminalised for it, where corporate-class or financier-class political cronies are going to see profit from it?" he asked Al Jazeera.

Green said marginalised groups should be encouraged to participate in what some have described as a Green Rush.

Enenajor agreed, pointing to Oakland, California, where at least half of all cannabis licenses will be issued to people with possession convictions, or who live in areas where police have carried out a disproportionately high number of cannabis arrests.

The Equity Applicants programme seeks to remove barriers for "Oakland residents who have been the most victimized by the war on drugs' to join the industry, the city says.

That idea, Enenajor said, hints at a "broader recognition that something has to be done to address the historic injustice that's been reflected through the criminalisation of marijuana".

"I think it's really important as we move forward to look back and ask the question of whose lives have been affected by this erroneous approach," she said.

"The proposed legalisation of cannabis [in Canada] ... is a critical moment for us because in some ways it brings to the forefront the reality that complete criminalisation is not the right approach to solve any social problem."

Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty is an Open Democracy Project Civic Campaign Accelerator participant. Website by DemocracyKit, created with NationBuilder.