Cannabis Amnesty founder pushing for change - and facts - around pardons for possession

Published in the Globe and Mail December 2, 2018

Annamaria Enenajor has got a fact-check for Canadians: The federal government is not pardoning people who have criminal records for cannabis possession.

Widespread use of the word “pardon” in news stories about the Liberals’ approach to dealing with possession records is misleading. First of all, the term “pardon” isn’t officially used in the Canadian justice system.

Second, a full erasing of criminal records, as the term suggests, isn’t what’s happening here.

“What they actually are is called "record suspensions,’” said Ms. Enenajor, director of the advocacy group Cannabis Amnesty and a partner at the firm Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe, about the justice system’s procedure. “They kind of put your record in a filing cabinet until you misbehave again, and then they can pull it out.”

She points to Canada’s “very disorganized” records, which aren’t in one database, but scattered between various courthouses, police forces and the RCMP. That makes it extremely likely, she said, that a supposedly suspended record will mistakenly pop up at an unexpected time, like during a custody hearing or employer background check.

And it’s mostly likely Indigenous, black or other racialized people who will suffer the consequences. Ms. Enenajor has seen first hand that they’re far more likely to be arrested, charged and convicted for cannabis offenses than white people.

In Toronto, black people are 8 per cent of the population, but were 25 per cent of those charged with possession between 2003 and 2013, as reported in the Toronto Star, following Freedom of Information requests for local police statistics. Meanwhile, just 9 per cent of people in Regina are Indigenous, but as Vice reports, also after FOI requests, in 2015 and 2016 they were 41 per cent of those arrested for cannabis possession. These statistics are echoed across the country.

So when the Liberals stated their intention to waive the waiting time (five to 10 years) and fee (about $600) to have possession records suspended, she was unimpressed. For Ms. Enenajor, there’s only one solution to dealing with the records.

“Delete,” she said.

The official term for erasing a record is “expungement,” but Ms. Enenajor tends to be blunt, even when faced with situations that other people might find intimidating.

“She was not shy,” said Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, about Ms. Enenajor’s time clerking for him in 2012. He remembers her as thorough, eloquent and not hesitant to let those at the top of the legal system know how she felt about the way it treated those accused and convicted of crimes.

“She is what a lawyer should be,” he said, someone willing “to speak on behalf of others who have no voice.”

That’s partly a result of her family’s nomadic history, said her younger sister, Emanuella Enenajor. The sisters were born in their mother’s home country of Slovakia, and before Annamaria was 10 they had lived in Austria, their father’s home country of Nigeria, Edmonton and the Netherlands. In December, 1993, the family finally settled in Toronto for good.

“Being immigrants to Canada, obviously there’s a lot of displacement that goes along with that,” said Emanuella, who works in finance in New York. “I think it just opened up our eyes to be more empathetic to people who find themselves in difficult circumstances.”

After studying law at McGill University, Ms. Enenajor headed to a large firm in New York. She gained a reputation for taking on pro bono cases and a class-action suit brought against abusive guards at Rikers Island prison “awakened” her “to the horror of the Western criminal justice system.” She made the decision to focus on criminal defence and, wanting to return to Canada, wrote Clayton Ruby and Brian Shiller in 2016 to ask for a job at their storied firm.

Her work has brought her face-to-face with racial inequalities around cannabis.

And since possession is often an individual’s first offence, Ms. Enenajor calls the charge “a gateway drug to the criminal justice system for people who don’t belong there." Then they come out with the baggage of a record, and offers to join in the activities of those they met in prison.

Ms. Enenajor says the federal Cannabis Act, which she calls “woefully deficient,” made no real commitment to addressing the issue. So she convened a group of academics, entrepreneurs and activists, and launched Cannabis Amnesty this past May.

Beyond simply lobbying politicians, the plan was to convince all Canadians that basic fairness required amnesty, not merely “suspension," for something that is no longer a crime. To support the group’s efforts, people browsing the website for B.C. cannabis producer Doja, for example, can buy shirts emblazoned with the word “Pardon."

The success of Cannabis Amnesty’s overall efforts is also thanks to Stephanie DiGiuseppe, another partner at Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe. As the fundraising head of the organization, she convinces cannabis companies that endorsing pardons is a corporate social responsibility: Aurora, out of Edmonton, donated $50,000.

Ms. Enenajor is full of good ideas, but “actually making those good ideas a reality is even a rarer skill," said Ms. DiGiuseppe. "The fact that she’s able to ... keep people excited and keep people motivated is fantastic.”

It’s also necessary, since politicians are still hesitant about full amnesty. Ms. Enenajor is typically straightforward and optimistic.

“I think it’s an uphill battle,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s one we cannot win.”

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