Canada’s Legalization Oversight: What About Amnesty for Marijuana Convictions?

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By, Kate Robertson

Jordana Goldlist was 16 years old when she was arrested for cannabis possession twice within a two-month period. Both times, she was given a discharge. So while she served a two-month probation period, she didn’t retain a criminal record. But the teenager, who had been living without family support on the streets of Toronto, endured an experience with the justice system she calls “insane.”

“Because I didn’t have an adult to come pick me up at the police station, I was brought to Vanier [a correctional facility for women]and spent four days in solitary confinement,” she told Marijuana.com. “As a 16-year-old with no criminal record. The way we treated marijuana 20 years ago is absolutely insane.”

Now 39, Goldlist said she was able to attend law school and become a criminal defense lawyer because she didn’t have a record — something that prevents many of her clients from finding work or new opportunities. That’s one of the reasons she’s sharing her story as part of the Cannabis Amnesty campaign, which aims to erase cannabis-related convictions from criminal records as part of Canada’s recreational weed legalization program.

The country’s new Cannabis Act, which comes into effect Oct. 17, 2018, does not address pardons for cannabis convictions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, which is vying for re-election in October 2019, has said his administration will examine current possession convictions after legalization. But on Oct. 3, 2018, the country’s left-wing National Democratic Party announced it would be presenting a bill calling for blanket pardons for those with non-violent marijuana possession convictions.

Cannabis Amnesty’s organizers estimate that 500,000 Canadians have records relating to possession alone, and if they want a pardon, they have to wait five years after a conviction and pay a $631 application fee, about $490 in U.S. dollars as of the Oct. 3, 2018, exchange rate.

Across Canada, black and indigenous communities are profiled and policed for cannabis more heavily than white communities, despite sharing similar rates of consumption, matching United States patterns. A 2017 investigation by the Toronto Star revealed that black people are arrested three times as much as white people by the city’s police, and the demographic is also less likely to get bail. In April, a Vice investigation showed a similarly striking racial divide, even leading up to legalization: Nationally between 2015 and 2017, analysts discovered that low-income black and indigenous people are overrepresented among cannabis possession arrests.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah studies drug policy as an assistant professor of sociology for the University of Toronto. (Photo courtesy of TEDxToronto)

“Our main aim is amnesty for individuals who’ve been convicted of crimes that are no longer illegal, and so for the most part, that’s simple cannabis possession,” said University of Toronto, Mississauga, assistant professor of sociology Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, who studies drug policy. On Oct. 26, 2018, he is leading a TEDxToronto talk in which he will argue the hypocrisy of legalizing a substance and forming a corporate cannabis industry without dealing with those negatively impacted by its criminalization.

“But [there should be]an acknowledgment on the part of the industry that this is a lingering problem,” Owusu-Bempah said. “In my view, legalization isn’t successful until we have an erasure of the criminal records — something that I personally think should never have been illegal. I think the main support from industry can be kind of confirmation of that fact: the ability to sell cannabis to adults in Canada is fantastic, but more needs to be done.”

Some members of the industry have voiced their support of the campaign. In August 2018, cultivation giant Aurora Cannabis donated $50,000. Aurora’s director of advocacy and corporate responsibility, Jonathan Zaid, who was hired in May 2018 and is known for being the first Canadian to persuade an insurance company to cover his medical cannabis prescription, said in a statement that the issue needed to be addressed “urgently.” Doja, a recreational cannabis brand owned by Aurora’s rival, Canopy Growth Corp., has started selling merchandise in support of the campaign, and others have shared links to the campaign’s petition. Organizers are hoping for 10,000 signatures. So far, more than 2,700 people have signed.

Even some former police officials in the cannabis industry — frequently accused of hypocrisy for enforcing drug laws before cashing in — have shown support. National Access Cannabis president Derek Ogden, former superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s drug squad, tweeted his support of pardons for possession. Some have raised the issue of practicalities: Who should take on the costs and labor associated with the vetting and administration of previous convictions?

Goldlist said that another issue will be those left behind, if pardons do ever get the green light. As a practicing lawyer, Goldlist said she has frequently witnessed a toxic cycle that’s often sparked by a marijuana arrest. She has clients who may have been arrested, broken probation, received a harsher sentence, and then re-offended on more serious charges — a symptom of the criminalization of drugs.

“I have clients who say they feel stuck in the system,” she said. “So how do you right that wrong? I’m not sure we can because we’re certainly not going to go and drop cannabis and other, violent offenses.”

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