News and Blogs

Cannabis legalization and equity in Canada


Recreational cannabis is almost legal in Canada, former cops are cashing in, yet our government is still hesitant to advance any measures that would repair some of the social damage caused by almost a century of cannabis prohibition. 

This is not the first time I have written about this issue and I highly doubt it will be the last – the need for equity and reparations in Canada’s emerging cannabis industry. Despite rumblings of a conservative attempt to stall implementation, the Trudeau government looks set to legalize recreational cannabis sales in Canada in the summer of 2018. This move has been celebrated as a means of promoting public health, reducing criminalization, and bringing a multi-billion dollar industry from the black market into the legal one. However, these celebrations are misplaced unless both the federal regulations and various provincial legislation provide avenues for inclusion and a means of repairing the harms caused by Canada’s war on drugs. We need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in this growing economy, while also working to improve the lives of people criminalized for activities that will no longer be illegal.

There is no doubt that cannabis prohibition has had a significant negative impact on certain segments of the Canadian population. Over the past 15 years, Canadian police agencies have reported more than 800,000 cannabis possession “incidents” to Statistics Canada. As former Toronto Police Chief and current Liberal Drug Czar, Bill Blair, has previously pointed out, the enforcement of cannabis laws disproportionately affects marginalized and racialized communities. He should know; Between 2003 and 2013 the Toronto Police Service arrested Black people for minor cannabis possession at three times the rates of Whites in the city (Blair served as chief from 2005 to 2015). These disparate rates of arrest for possession contrast with data showing relatively similar rates of cannabis use across racial groups in Ontario. As a result, 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.

How does this relate to the emerging industry? At present, the laws and regulations stipulate that people with a criminal record are to be denied the security clearance needed in order to work for a licenced medical cannabis producer. The federal  government is currently conducting consultations on whether those with minor cannabis convictions (“such as simple possession or small scale cultivation of cannabis plants”) should be able to obtain a security clearance and participate in the legal recreational industry. Of course they should – we are legalizing personal cannabis possession and small scale cultivation precisely because we recognize that prohibiting the substance and these activities was counterproductive. To add insult to injury, many of the most prominent law enforcers in the country, the drug warriors whose war is seemingly ending, are now themselves cashing in on legal cannabis. In addition to Bill Blair, who has made a second career on cannabis, his predecessor at the Toronto Police Service, former Chief Julian Fantino (yes, the guy who as a conservative MP supported mandatory minimum jail sentences for people convicted of growing six cannabis plants) has partnered with the ex-deputy commissioner of the RCMP to form a cannabis business. A former deputy chief of the Toronto Police Service as well as the previous head of the RCMP drug squad are also active in the industry. To many observers, the involvement of former law enforcement officials in legal cannabis is both hypocritical and offensive. This is doubly true if we do not open up access to the industry while at the same time actively working to correct historical (and contemporary) wrongs.

So how can we rectify this?

Provide space for people who have been affected by the war on drugs, as well as members of over-policed communities, to benefit from legal cannabis as well. I have previously suggested a three-pronged approach, based largely on a model developing in the United States, to do just that. Some American jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis are working to incorporate reparations and equity measures into law, policy and practice. These are three main areas that should be addressed in Canada: 

1. Federal legislation

Follow the example provided in Bill C66 by pardoning individuals convicted of activities that are no longer illegal. These pardons should be automatically granted by the federal government and should apply to any subsequent charges (for example, failure to comply with bail conditions) stemming from an original cannabis charge.

 2. Tax revenue distribution

Reinvest a portion of tax revenue from legal sales to improve the circumstances of individuals and communities most harmed by prohibition. Canada’s three levels of government have long committed tax dollars to help police agencies enforce cannabis laws.  As we move towards legalization, a plan should be put in place to direct a portion of the tax revenue generated from legal sales back to those individuals and communities most affected by drug law enforcement. This could include specific funding allocations to schools, community centres, and jobs training programs in affected areas. 

3. Cannabis industry participation

Ensure that those racialized and otherwise marginalized populations most impacted by prohibition are provided the opportunity to participate in the licit cannabis industry. These populations should not be both the targets of drug law enforcement and then subsequently excluded from working in the legal cannabis economy. Both government and private corporations can work to broaden participation in a number of ways. For example, all levels of government should implement tiered licencing systems to foster small business development and provide specialized loans to help these businesses grow. Private corporations can help by implementing recruiting and human resource strategies that foster inclusion in the industry. Pairing industry insiders with potential cannabis entrepreneurs in targeted mentoring programs would also prove useful. Provinces that have declared a monopoly over sales should implement the same strategies suggested for private industry.

I will finish by reminding readers that Canada stood at the vanguard of international drug law with its adoption of the Opium Act of 1908. This law, and many that have followed, have had a hugely detrimental impact on the very groups that their proponents so often purported to help. At a time when Canada once again stands at the forefront of international drug law, we should set an example to the world by providing redress for the harms we have inflicted.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is Broadbent Fellow and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. Dr. Owusu-Bempah’s work focuses on the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice, with a particular interest in the area of policing. His current projects include: a study of Black males’ perceptions of and experiences with the police in Greater Toronto Area (including the experiences of both civilians and police officers); and an examination of representations of Blackness in Canadian print media.