The deadline to legalize marijuana may have been pushed back, but establishing an amnesty for pot convictions remains urgent.
Marijuana legalization has had a winding road. After 14 months of debate and discussion, Bill C-45 goes before the Senate on Thursday for a final vote; if all goes well, it goes back to the House Commons before receiving royal assent.
The flaws in the marijuana legalization process are deeply troubling. When Bill Blair, the former Toronto Police chief and Liberal MP, was put in charge of the file, there was much chin-scratching. He’d headed up a police service that disproportionately arrested Black people for marijuana possession, and there appeared to be a contradiction in asking him to lead the process of making pot legal.
A Toronto Star analysis of a decade’s worth of data from 2003-2013 found that “Toronto police arrested 11,299 people whose skin colour was noted — and who had no prior convictions — for possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana. These individuals were not on parole or probation when arrested.” Black people comprised 25.2 percent of arrests when they only made up 8.4 percent of the city’s population according to the 2006 census. This disproportionality falls firmly within the era when Blair was head of Toronto police.
The jailer, it seemed, was put in charge of correcting the injustice.
That correction has not come about. If anything, the contradictions that the Bill Blair appointment surfaced have only deepened.
Because he is not the only former cop with an apparent conflict of interest. A former RCMP head, another ex-Toronto police chief, a former police chief from Abbotsford, B.C., a former head of the Vancouver drug squad — they’re but a few of the many ex-police now involved in marijuana-based businesses.
While police are set to profit from legalization, a key part is still missing from the existing legislation: amnesty for people with convictions related to pot. The Liberal government is quick to acknowledge the existing harms of marijuana as an illegal drug. At a conference in Montreal last month, Bill Blair said, “I have to tell you from experience, I know a ton of people — and I’m sure many of you people have had this experience in this room — as a result of a youthful indiscretion or some choices they made when they were younger, they have this criminal record.”
And yet, they have not added in amnesty as a key part of their legalization plan.
In fact, they’ve said that amnesty is something they might consider, but only after legalization has been completed. A group called the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty has put together an amendment to the existing legislation that will grant amnesty for simple possession. Lawyer Annamaria Enenajor, who is with the group, told NOW Magazine, “It’s really disheartening to see how people who have had their lives torn apart (are) completely left out of the conversation.”
Many of those people are Black and Indigenous. Estimates put the number of affected people between half a million to one million. Yet their government remains unconcerned about their prospects while enriching the police officers who arrested them.
Marijuana legalization is set to become the law, but for far too many people the injustice remains.