2 Years After Legalizing Hashish, Has Canada Saved Its Guarantees?

2 Years After Legalizing Cannabis, Has Canada Kept Its Promises?

OTTAWA — When Robert was 18, he was arrested by Montreal’s police for possession of a small quantity of cannabis, an occasion that will upend his younger life.

The cost introduced him 30 days in jail, and the conviction ended his part-time job as a translator.

“Again then, you smoke a joint, you’ll get arrested,” mentioned Robert, who requested that solely his first identify be used due to the persevering with stigma of his felony report. “Then the cops would put you in a automobile, then pull over and offer you a few photographs within the head. You get slapped round simply due to smoking.”

His arrest in 1988 as a teen marked the beginning of an extended, sad historical past with Canada’s authorized system, together with his first jail stint opening up a brand new commerce: housebreaking.

“It was like college,” mentioned Robert, who spent a complete of 14 years locked up, roughly divided between convictions on drug offenses and thefts to purchase extra medicine. “I went there for smoking after which guys are exhibiting me find out how to open doorways.”

The leisure use of hashish was legalized in Canada two years ago, and when the federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made its legalization pitch to the nation, it was tales like Robert’s — a life derailed by a possession cost — that the majority resonated with many Canadians.

Legalization, the federal government vowed, would deal with the inequalities in a felony justice system the place marijuana and cannabis penalties and prosecutions — and the lifelong burdens they impose — had fallen disproportionately on marginalized communities, significantly Black Canadians and Indigenous individuals.

That promise has largely been saved, with legalization primarily ending what Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor of sociology on the College of Toronto who research race and policing in Canada, referred to as the “closely racialized” arrests for marijuana possession.

However another key guarantees, and hopes, that got here with Canada being the primary industrialized nation to legalize marijuana stay unfulfilled.

The for-profit business it created has struggled. Pot gross sales outdoors the authorized system nonetheless thrive. Indigenous communities really feel their wants are being ignored. And the injustices that got here from criminalizing pot prior to now have but to be totally remedied.

As extra of the US legalizes marijuana, with voters in New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona this previous November backing recreational use, becoming a member of a few dozen different states, right here’s a have a look at the Canadian expertise two years into its nationwide experiment.


Mr. Trudeau’s pledge to legalize marijuana was not universally welcomed by Canadians, together with some members of his Liberal social gathering, who feared it will encourage use, significantly amongst youngsters.

However the prime minister persuaded his social gathering, and many citizens, with an argument primarily based on equity and equality.

Mr. Trudeau illustrated the system’s bias with a household story. In a 2017 interview with Vice, he mentioned that his brother, Michel, was discovered carrying a pair marijuana joints by the police in 1998, six months earlier than he was killed in an avalanche.

Their father, Pierre Trudeau, a former prime minister, got here to the rescue.

“We have been capable of make these prices go away,” Mr. Trudeau mentioned. “We have been ready to do this as a result of we had sources, my dad had a pair connections, and we have been assured that my little brother wasn’t going to be saddled with a felony report for all times.”

Legalization, he promised, would be certain that not simply the linked and rich may keep away from a felony report.

The brand new legislation has all however eradicated possession prices. In 2018, the police recorded 26,402 possession instances till legalization went into impact in mid-October. In 2019, that quantity dropped to 46, in keeping with Statistics Canada. (Possessing over 30 grams of marijuana stays unlawful.)

A report launched in August by the Ontario Human Rights Fee confirmed simply how tied to race hashish arrests had been earlier than legalization: An analysis of police data discovered that whereas Black individuals made up 8.Eight p.c of the inhabitants of Toronto, they confronted 34 p.c of marijuana possession prices there between 2013 and 2017.

The police have misplaced one device they as soon as used, Professor Owusu-Bempah mentioned, “as a means of bringing sure marginalized populations into the felony justice system.”

However how a lot change that’s dropped at the system as an entire is open to query. Whereas Canada is just beginning to gather crime and police information that features race, a number of leaders from minority communities proceed to demand motion in opposition to what they name systemic racism within many police forces. Final June Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that systemic racism is discovered within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the nationwide police power, and different legislation enforcement companies.

What We Discovered

Whereas decriminalizing marijuana possession is seen as a step towards constructing a fairer justice system, many charged below the outdated legislation are nonetheless coping with the devastating penalties, regardless of guarantees of redress.

“We haven’t reckoned as a rustic with the affect that drug prohibition has particularly had on Black Canadians,” Professor Owusu-Bempah mentioned. “Sadly, too lots of them are being left with a felony report.”

The legalization effort got here with an amnesty program the federal government mentioned would erase felony data for possession, however there are obstacles to entry.

The method, Professor Owusu-Bempah mentioned, is each difficult — with as many as six steps involved — and underpublicized, making it extra a privilege for the few than a extensively out there resolution.

Whereas there isn’t any authorities statistic for the variety of Canadians with possession data, a 2014 report by the Middle for Habit and Psychological Well being, a Toronto hospital and analysis middle, put the determine as excessive as 500,000.

As of mid-November, simply 341 individuals had succeeded in erasing their data. There aren’t any charges, however candidates should incessantly spend cash to journey to the place of their arrest to retrieve their records, they usually should be fingerprinted.

Even when Robert, who has lived in Vancouver the previous 25 years, may afford to return to Montreal, he says it wouldn’t be price it. Eradicating the possession prices wouldn’t alter the theft convictions that adopted.

“I’ve bought a lot in opposition to the system,” mentioned Robert, who has stayed out of jail the previous decade and works for an overdose-prevention group. “It made every thing exit of my attain.”


When marijuana was unlawful in Canada, the Inexperienced Mile was a well-liked place to purchase it, with a few dozen mismatched retailers alongside a stretch of freeway in Ontario providing each type of hashish product possible.

Two years after legalization, clients nonetheless come to those shops within the Indigenous group of Alderville — though the sellers function outdoors the brand new system put in place to manage authorized gross sales.

“These individuals know what I’m in search of,” mentioned Jess Lihou, whose one-hour drive to Maryjane’s Hashish Dispensary within the Inexperienced Mile was justified, in her view, for 2 primary causes: worth and choice.

The licensed retail chains “don’t have sufficient choices,” Ms. Lihou mentioned: “And it’s cheaper. So nice offers and nice individuals.”

The provincial police in Ontario usually respect the sovereignty of Indigenous communities and take enforcement motion in opposition to retailers like these alongside the Inexperienced Mile provided that requested by a group’s leaders.

However the brand new system has been criticized for conserving these Indigenous operations in a gray-market authorized limbo, regardless of guarantees that Indigenous individuals can be consulted and made a part of the brand new system.

“Legalization occurred so shortly that these problems with fairness and problems with sovereignty with respect to Indigenous individuals weren’t correctly addressed,” Professor Owusu-Bempah mentioned. “The federal government’s nonetheless making an attempt to determine precisely what it desires to do.”

In Ontario, the provincial authorities is assembly with Indigenous leaders concerning the retailers, in keeping with Jenessa Crognali, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s lawyer common.

“The province stays dedicated to continued engagement with First Nations communities fascinated by having provincially regulated shops or in creating their very own approaches to authorized hashish retail,” Ms. Crognali wrote in an electronic mail.

However with their authorized standing nonetheless unclear, the specter of being shut down hangs over Inexperienced Mile retailers.

“We’re hopeful, however we’ve by no means been too assured,” mentioned Laurie Marsden, a co-founder of one of many retailers, Therapeutic Home, which emulates the provincial system by operating a lab that checks for efficiency and contamination. “We imagine in our sovereign rights and that we now have the power to provide, develop and promote the medicines to our buyer base.”


When Mr. Trudeau introduced his authorities’s plans for legalization, the creation of a significant new supply of jobs — or tax income — was not in this system.

However traders envisioned super enterprise alternatives, as a “inexperienced rush” swept the Toronto Inventory Alternate and authorized gamers invested hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in supersized greenhouses.

Two years later, most marijuana producers are nonetheless reporting multimillion-dollar losses.

And these firms’ executives are overwhelmingly white, in keeping with an analysis by Professor Owusu-Bempah. It concluded that 2 p.c of the businesses’ management are Indigenous individuals and 1 p.c are Black Canadians.

“African-Canadians and different racialized Canadians that have been adversely affected by hashish prohibition must be given an opportunity to profit from the fruits of legalization,” Professor Owusu-Bempah mentioned. “We had this example the place Black and Indigenous individuals have been being overly criminalized. Now they’re being ignored of what’s a multibillion-dollar business.”


Along with a fairer authorized system, the federal government promised legalization would shift marijuana gross sales out of the black market, elements of that are dominated by organized crime.

“By controlling it, by legalizing it,” Mr. Trudeau mentioned in 2018, “we’re going to make sure that felony organizations and road gangs don’t make hundreds of thousands, billions of {dollars} of earnings yearly.”

And the strict laws governing authorized gross sales, the prime minister promised, would be certain that Canadians have been consuming marijuana not adulterated with different medicine or toxins and would get rid of gross sales to minors.

The present pot scene in Vancouver is an efficient illustration of a promise that also has a methods to go earlier than being fulfilled.

Town as soon as had extra pot retailers than Starbucks, with greater than 100 on the peak. Now, there are about 19 unlicensed retailers, together with 34 authorized operators, numbers that broadly replicate the state of affairs throughout Canada: Gross sales outdoors the authorized system are shrinking however haven’t disappeared.

“The shift has began, and possibly round half the market has transitioned from unlawful to authorized retail sources,” mentioned David Hammond, a professor of public well being on the College of Waterloo in Ontario who’s heading a multiyear study on cannabis use.

With loyal clients and infrequently a aggressive benefit on worth (with no taxes to pay) and choice, the unlawful retailers are hanging on.

“They’re not simply going to roll over and go away,” mentioned Mike Farnworth, the minister of public security in British Columbia.

In its newest survey launched simply over a 12 months in the past, Statistics Canada, the census company, discovered that 28 percent of Canadians shopped for marijuana exclusively at legal stores and websites, whereas 58 p.c used a mixture of authorized and unlawful sources.

Shutting down the unlicensed shops has not been a precedence amid an opioid disaster: In British Columbia, from January by way of October 2020, 1,548 people died from overdoses.

For Canada’s unlawful growers, marijuana “remains to be enterprise,” mentioned Detective Inspector Jim Walker, deputy director of the Ontario Provincial Police’s organized crime enforcement bureau.

However there are clear indicators the authorized home possibility is forcing gangs to look elsewhere. The quantity and measurement of seizures of outbound marijuana, mentioned Mr. Walker, referring to pot headed to the US, “are rising exponentially.”

THE TAKEAWAY: Legalization largely delivered on its promise for a extra equitable Canada, however has not eradicated unlicensed gross sales or introduced redress to lots of these whose lives have been handicapped by a conviction.

Tracy Sherlock contributed reporting from Vancouver, British Columbia.

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