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Drug Prohibition Reparations

For Black History Month, the Institute launched a policy series highlighting bold policy solutions in order to tackle anti-Black racism, focusing on the need for intergovernmental action. Each submission proposes a plan for governments to work together to tackle a problem; while serving as a guide for advocates working towards [what should be] our collective effort to eradicate anti-Black racism. 

Since the start of the 20th century, drug prohibition laws in Canada have been used to disproportionately target, harass, control, criminalize, and incarcerate non-white communities. Black people in Canada have been one of the communities especially affected, experiencing significantly higher rates of police attention, arrests, and prosecution than their share of the population. When added to the abundant threats to public health and safety presented by illicit drug markets, it is clear that drug policy reform is long overdue. From necessary amendments to the federal criminal code, to provincial and municipal collaboration on program delivery — constructive and effective drug policy reform cannot be achieved without inter-governmental action.

Using cannabis as an example case, the federal government legalized the drug for recreational use, and stated its intent to ease the pardon application process for those with cannabis conviction records. These measures don’t adequately address the entrenched inequities they face. Having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find housing or employment, obtain a loan or mortgage, pursue certain kinds of education, and more.

An estimated 500,000 Canadians have cannabis conviction records, disproportionately Black and Indigenous. To remedy this, each level of government must work in tandem to deliver reparative policies that address these inequities, and lift the impairments holding back all those affected.

First, the federal government has an obligation to reverse the harm its drug policies have disproportionately placed on the lives and freedom of Black and other racialized people in Canada. Pardons – or ‘record suspensions’ – fail to do this, as they preserve the person’s prior ‘criminal’ status, and so maintain many of the impairments that come with it. Passing legislation to proactively expunge non-violent conviction records is the only appropriate solution.

Provincial governments also play an essential role. Alongside conducting administration, regulation, and oversight of the legal cannabis market, provincial governments should dedicate a portion of the public revenues toward public programs and funding seeking to offset the barriers endured by Black Canadians and other racialized groups due to drug-related criminalization. These would include facilitating access to public loans and mortgages, housing, education and employment programs, and more.

Moreover, when particular communities are targeted by prosecution and criminalization, the resulting criminal records are concentrated in specific neighbourhoods, reducing the neighbourhood’s economic prospects and vitality overall. This paints these neighbourhoods as ‘undesirable,’ reducing public and private investment, and increasing levels of police attention – thus continuing the cycle and further entrenching the problem. Dedicate resources to community revitalization and local economic development. The government closest to the people is uniquely positioned to highlight, capture and help redirect resources in order to improve policy implementation from upper levels of governments.

Most importantly, our governments must recognize cannabis criminalization – and drug prohibition more broadly – as a ‘historical injustice’ against Black, Indigenous, and racialized groups, and center these groups in the ongoing conversations around cannabis legalization. Only then can they determine precisely which reparative programs are needed at the local, provincial and federal level for the communities and neighbourhoods targeted for decades by a weaponized regime of discrimination.

Chuka Ejeckam studies politics and policy at the University of British Columbia, focusing on drug policy and inequality.