Doing What's Right: Social Equity In the Cannabis Industry
Legalization Day has arrived and there is no doubt that this monumental decision is offering Canadians all sorts of new opportunities. The significance of this milestone was only deepened by the federal government's recent announcement that it intends to table legislation to allow Canadians with minor cannabis possession convictions to apply for a pardon.
It is clear that the work of the PARDON campaign is not falling on deaf ears - a critical "step" has been accomplished and policymakers are beginning to acknowledge the inequity that cannabis prohibition has disproportionally caused to racialized communities across Canada.
Yet, as cannabis celebrations continue, it is important to recognize that there is still a long way to go until we can rightly claim a just society; especially when it comes to passing the most appropriate legislation that provides amnesty for the over half a million Canadians disadvantaged by the nearly 100-year era of cannabis prohibition.
According to Statistics Canada, over the past 15 years Canadian police agencies have reported more than 800 000 cannabis possession “incidents” and following October 17th, the majority of these instances are no longer considered a crime. However, beyond that, a closer study of the facts reveals a staggering bias against Canada’s marginalized communities.
As Canada’s own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently pointed out, marginalized groups including Canada’s black and indigenous communities have been over policed when it comes to non-violent, possession charges.
Speaking at a town hall in Toronto, the PM admitted that “one of the fundamental unfairnesses of this current system is that it affects different communities in a different way.” Answering a question posed by a young black man facing possession charges, Trudeau recalled the aftermath of his late brother Michel’s pot bust. “My dad had a couple of connections and we were confident that my little brother wasn’t going to be saddled with a criminal record for life.”
Liberal Drug Czar and former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair echoed Trudeau's thoughts, stating, “One of the great injustices in this country is the disparity and the disproportionality of the enforcement of these laws and the impact it has on minority communities, Aboriginal communities and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods.”
And he should know, according to the Toronto Star, black Torontonians without priors are three times more likely to be arrested for possession than white Torontonians, while black people in Halifax are five times more likely and Indigenous residents of Regina are nine times more likely.
Which is to say, legalization is not just about ending a needless prohibition but is also about healing deep-seeded discrimination facing long-standing advocates of the cannabis industry.
According to existing research in the United States, legalization does not guarantee social equity–in states that have legalized cannabis, racialized people still face higher rates of arrest for cannabis-related convictions.
Thankfully, solutions are already being tested to correct this issue.
One such initiative gaining popularity down south is "cannabis equity" - a progressive policy that aims to improve the unequal damage caused by the drug war through preferential licensing and financial support.
Cannabis equity sprung up in Oakland, California, where people of colour represent 30 percent of the population but account for 77 percent of cannabis arrests in 2015. When the plant became legalized in January 2018, the city reserved half of its dispensary and cultivation licences for low-income residents with cannabis-related convictions and/or from over-policed neighbourhoods. It also waived permit fees and offered free rent and zero-interest loans to address their lack of access to capital.
Oakland is also home to the advocate group Supernova Women, an organization that creates gateways of equity in the cannabis industry by offering women of colour empowerment through community education and advocacy. In response to the work of Supernova Women, the Oakland City Council established a Race and Equity initiative to conduct and analyze the city’s cannabis industry and, last year, implemented the Revised Medical Pot Program, which included a provision that marginalized people arrested and convicted after Nov. 5, 1996, can apply as an equity applicant in the sector.
These progressive solutions are not exclusive to California. Massachusetts state law requires the Cannabis Control Commission to promote full participation in the industry by people disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.
While the States is moving in the right direction, more work is needed in Canada—despite the same inequities expressed in our justice system and the newfound availability of legal product, nation-wide.
As the Canadian industry grows, background checks are already keeping most individuals with black or grey-market experience locked out of employment in the legal sector. There have been some allowances, Manitoba has introduced a retail “hybrid model” that gives preference to retailers with First Nations partnerships, while Alberta is making an exception to allow people with minor possession convictions into the retail space, but they fall considerably short for those who have been unfairly burdened with a criminal record — limiting their ability to secure employment, volunteer or even get a place to live.
This is why the work of organizations such as Cannabis Amnesty remains so important. This non-profit is a volunteer-run organization made up of lawyers and advocates working to provide those disadvantaged by possession convictions with opportunities to lead a burdensome life.
According to Cannabis Amnesty, a fair and effective cannabis amnesty process must contain four central features: "the application must be free, its effects must be immediate, the process must be simple, and [versus record suspension] it must involve the expungement or permanent deletion of records."
While the government considers an appropriate course of action, gathering support for the PARDON campaign is now more vital than ever! This partnership between DOJA and Cannabis Amnesty aims to collect 10,000 signatures for a petition focused on the expungement of personal possession offences that preceded the arrival of cannabis legalization. You can help Cannabis Amnesty’s valuable work by signing the petition here (and spreading the word!).
In addition, PARDON is also selling a limited range of products with 100 percent of the proceeds supporting the efforts of Cannabis Amnesty. Check them out here and contribute to a brighter future for those most impacted by cannabis prohibition.
By Jon Dekel + Lucia Stephen