Cannabis Legalization and the Need for Amnesty

Research and analysis conducted by Prof. Owusu-Bempah & Alex Luscombe

The legalization of cannabis is a move forward for our country and sends a positive message to the rest of the world about a changing tide in the global war on drugs. Our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, rose to power in 2015 with legalization as a key feature of his election campaign. Having personally admitted to smoking cannabis while sitting as an MP, Trudeau’s messaging clearly resonated amongst a Canadian population with its own fondness for the drug; 1 in 10 Canadians aged fifteen and over admitted to using cannabis in 2012.

Recognizing the harms brought by prohibition, many Canadians have long supported its legalization. Now, the federal government is responding to public sentiment. However, as we progress toward legalization, we must recognize the damage caused by almost a century of prohibition. Indeed, although perhaps not as well publicized as the American example, Canada has intensified its own war on drugs over the past several decades. In the past 15 years, for example, Canadian police agencies reported more than 800,000 cannabis possession “incidents” to Statistics Canada.


Figure 1: Police-reported cannabis offences in Canada, by type of offence, 1977-2013. Graph reproduced using data from Cotter et al. (2015). Reproduced in excel using Statistics Canada available at:

In 2013 alone, the most recent year for which data are readily available, Canadian police departments reported approximately 109,000 offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). Of these, roughly 73,000 were cannabis-related cases and 59,000 were for possession. While many of these cases were cleared through police discretion (i.e. not taken to court), the number of people tried for simple possession was not insignificant. Between 2008/2009 and 2011/2012, cannabis possession accounted for approximately 59,000 adult and 14,000 youth cases completed in Canadian courts. Of these, 25,000 adults and almost 6,000 youth were found guilty. So, in less than half the time our Prime Minister has held office, more than 30,000 Canadians were branded with the marker of a criminal record.

Unfortunately, these 30,000 people are added to a long list of Canadians (perhaps as many as 500,000) who, like them, face difficulties travelling overseas, volunteering at their local schools and finding meaningful employment, all because they were caught by the police in possession of cannabis.


The Racialized Nature of Cannabis Law Enforcement

It is also important to recognize the racialized nature of the criminalization of cannabis in Canada. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Canadians of different backgrounds consume cannabis at different rates, racialized Canadians are more likely to be arrested than given a warning and are more likely to receive harsher dispositions. Even Trudeau’s drug czar, and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, has acknowledged that the enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws have disproportionately impacted poor neighbourhoods and racialized communities. The limited data currently available support this view.

For example, in 2017, Toronto Star obtained, through freedom-of-information request, cannabis arrest and charge data for the years 2003 – 2013 from the TPS. Over this period the TPS arrested 27, 635 people for cannabis possession and possession for the purpose of trafficking offences. In order to focus on those people with whom the police could exercise the most discretion, the Star’s analysis included only the 11, 299 individuals with no previous criminal record, whose race was noted, and who had been arrested for simple possession of 30 grams of cannabis or less (Rankin, Contenta and Bailey, 2017). The Star’s analysis shows that Black people were greatly over-represented in arrests for cannabis possession offences made by the TPS between 2003 and 2013. Whereas Black people represented 8.4% of Toronto’s population over this time, they accounted for 25.2% of those arrested for cannabis possession – four times their representation in the general population. White and “Brown”[1] Torontonians were arrested at rates relatively similar to their representation in the general population; Whites made up 52.8% of those arrested compared with 53.1% of the overall population and Brown people accounted for 15.7% of those arrested while accounting for 14.7% of Toronto’s population. Although Black people were over represented in the arrest data, people categorized as “other” were under-represented in arrests (6.3%) in comparison to their representation in the general population (23.8%).


The Need for Amnesty

As a result of Canada’s war on drugs, some of our most vulnerable populations have been burdened with a criminal record that limits their ability to participate fully in our society. For example, people with a criminal record have a harder time securing employment, thereby restricting earning potential and the contributions one can make financially to their families and communities. Minor cannabis offences can also serve as a “gateway” into the criminal justice system for people who become “known to police,” which increasing their chances of further criminalization and social marginalization. At a time when individuals and businesses involved in the emerging cannabis industry stand to reap huge profits, and the government eyes the potential tax revenue, it is imperative that we do not forget the victims of Canadian drug prohibition.



[1] The category “Brown” includes people of South Asian, West Asian and Arab descent.

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