Article by Neil Price, NOW Toronto
The war on drugs has had a devastating and disproportionate effect on racialized groups, particularly young Black men.
While research has shown that Black people partake in recreational pot at the same rates as their white counterparts, it’s Black people who have endured the heavy hand of justice. Black people are twice as likely to be taken to a police station after being charged for simple possession of marijuana. They are also twice as likely to be held overnight for a bail hearing.
Those are just two examples of how racism has underpinned the state’s failed war on drugs, a failure that has resulted in countless Black youth being criminalized for doing what 20 per cent of the Canadian population does mostly unfettered.
As the federal government prepares to legalize recreational cannabis next year, former politicians, lawyers, prime ministers and senior police officers have lined up to cash in as investors and advisors to licensed medical marijuana producers. Of course, the guys I grew up with who sold the stuff on the street are burdened with criminal records and other problems and don’t stand a chance in the legalized industry.
What exactly are the various levels of government planning to do to redress the harm done to thousands of Black youth who have received life-limiting criminal records due to recreational pot? More specifically, how will profits from the projected $23-billion industry be diverted to those most adversely affected by bad drug policy?
As University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah points out in a recent Toronto Star op-ed, cannabis possession has given police a broad pretext to probe further into the lives of Black youth more so than any other criminal offense. Combined with carding, this has meant possession charges become the leading “gateway” to criminal records that affect the mobility, employment and quality of life prospects of countless Black people, writes Owusu-Bempah.
Despite growing calls for “pot-equity,” federal cannabis czar, Bill Blair, Toronto’s former police chief (and proponent of carding), has been silent on the equity issue, saying only that the federal government will look at the possibility of granting pardons after legalization comes into effect. As it stands, those convicted of marijuana-related offenses, with the exception (maybe) of minor offenses, would currently not qualify to become licensed producers.
But pardons are only one part of a just and equitable cannabis legalization framework. What’s needed is a comprehensive strategy that ensures people have options.
An equity-based approach to legalization would include financial, government and educational initiatives that share the same purpose and outcomes.
Banks, for example, which will no doubt benefit from the legal pot economy, could create low-interest loan programs.