Cannabis Amnesty: A call for equality

UTM professor Owusu-Bempah states minorities continue to suffer cannabis possession charges post cannabis legalization

The legalization of edibles came into effect by the Canadian government on October 17—the one-year anniversary of cannabis legalization. 

A year prior, the start of exciting new prospects for business owners and cannabis users was dampened by lurches and false starts due to cannabis supply shortages, delayed store openings, and the tightening of rules by provincial governments. This also left the black market on cannabis open, far from the black market shut-down discussed by the government.

The federal government’s Bill, C-93—the no-fee, expedited pardons of simple possession of cannabis—offers those convicted only for the possession of cannabis to forgo the $631 and the ten-year wait period, as long as they have completed the rest of their sentence. 

But, organizations like Cannabis Amesty argue that while Bill C-93 is a significant step towards repairing the damage done to historically marginalized Canadians, the government needs to do more.          

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at UTM, works for Cannabis Amnesty as Director of Research and advocates for changes to Bill C-93 to better serve marginalized communities who are denied work and travel.

“Record suspensions do not go far enough because the record still exists. It is still accessible in certain circumstances, and can ultimately be reversed. Expungement is permanent,” said Owusu-Bempah.  

Cannabis Amnesty is a non-profit organization advocating on behalf of marginalized communities that have been denied opportunities for their cannabis-related, non-violent

Their petition, which launched on May 5, 2018, asks the federal government to pardon all individuals charged with the possession of cannabis. The petition has been endorsed by  Canadian Hollywood star Seth Rogen and Ontario’s Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. 

As of today, the petition has been signed by over 10,000 people.

Cannabis Amnesty was an important force in starting the conversation on the serious impact of cannabis-related offences on minorities. Over the past 15 years, Canadian police agencies have reported over 800,000 cannabis possession “incidents” and over 500,000 Canadians have been left with a criminal record for cannabis possession.

A disproportionate arrest rate is also a big part of the problem, with Indigenous, Black, and vulnerable members of society being overrepresented in cannabis arrests, according to Cannabis Amnesty.         

On the rollout of Cannabis legalization in Canada, Owusu-Bempah states it was politically and economically driven. 

“Our legalization did not come as a response to a recognition of the racialized harms caused by prohibition. Indeed, our brand of legalization was largely a political and an economic move. The stated aims of Canadian legalization are to protect youth, promote public health, and reduce the illegal trade of cannabis,” said Owusu-Bempah.

“As a result, Canadian cannabis legalization lacks many of the measures intended to repair the harms inflicted on vulnerable communities that have resulted from the war on drugs.”

Bill C-93, outlined by the House of Commons, states that those convicted with simple possession of cannabis offences before October 17, 2018 can apply for the suspension. The bill covers many topics but is merely a fraction of the action needed, states Cannabis Amnesty, especially when comparing it to the work some American states, which have similarly legalized cannabis, have done.         

“Having acknowledged that drug prohibition has had a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino populations in the United States, many jurisdictions have incorporated reparation measures into legalization. The most common of these measures include the expungement and clearing of cannabis related criminal records, policies, and initiatives to ensure that people and communities affected by prohibition are provided an opportunity to participate in the legal cannabis industry, and strategies to allocate a portion of the revenue generated from legal sales back into the communities most harmed by prohibition.”            

On May 1, criminal defense lawyer Annamaria Enenajor spoke to a committee in the House of Commons on behalf of Cannabis Amnesty about concerns surrounding Bill C-93.

“Despite [cannabis’] widespread consumption, a growing body of social science evidence has shown that not all Canadians face the same consequences for the same actions,” said Enenajor in her address to the House of Commons. 

“Black Canadians, Indigenous people of Canada, and low-income Canadians are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, [and] incarcerated for cannabis possession offences than white Canadians […] This is a historic injustice and a systemic Charter violation that cries out for redress,” said Enenajor.

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