We’re almost two years in, and it’s easy to see that a lot of what was promised about the Canadian cannabis industry has not yet come to pass. “The initial intention of the government was to legalize what was already there, but then big business took over,” says Geordie Sabbagh, the writer and director of the new movie Canadian Strain. Wanting to make a film that focused on a uniquely Canadian story, Sabbagh’s flick centres on a young female dealer whose world is flipped upside down when cannabis becomes legal in Canada.
Although this tale is a fictionalized version of events, how things seem to be looking post-legalization is not all sunshine and pot puns, and the effects have been far more dire than those depicted on screen. When it was announced in 2019 that the government would offer no-cost pot pardons, many were relieved, only to have that relief quickly turn to frustration.
There is even contempt from within the government. In November, senator Kim Pate noted the low number of those who had actually acquired pardons for their pot charges in an op-ed (118 as of last December), acknowledging that those meagre digits were likely due to barriers including the requirement for “applicants to spend time and money having their fingerprints taken, obtaining RCMP record checks and locating original documents from record keepers in the jurisdiction where charges were originally laid.”
“What’s more,” Pate continued, “those marginalized by race, gender, class, health and ability are most likely to be left behind, further stigmatized and further punished.” Many are noting that pardons can be revoked through the Criminal Records Act, while expungement — what some say the government should actually be focusing on — erases a person’s arrest record entirely. The amount of people who have actually been granted pardons is extremely low, considering the government estimates that about 250,000 Canadians have cannabis charges against them.
It’s worth noting that a high number of these canna- bis charges occurred just before legalization. Out of the 90,625 drug arrests in Canada in 2017, more than half of drug offences were cannabis-related, and 42 per cent of those arrests were for cannabis possession. Echoing Pate, it’s important to mention that the majority of those arrested were people of colour.
To explain what all this means to Canadians with criminal possession charges, we spoke to Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto (U of T), and the director of research at Cannabis Amnesty.
On March 1, 2019, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-93 — a no-wait, no-cost application process that granted pardons to those who were previously convicted for cannabis possession. Before it was introduced there was typically a five to 10 year waiting period until those with convictions were allowed to apply to be pardoned. Acquiring a pardon also involved a fee of over $600 CAD.
This initial pardon, however, is for possession under 30 grams. As a result, from the date of legalization to the end of 2018, there were 1,454 new arrests under the new Cannabis Act. For those in previous years whose violations were under 30 grams, pardons allow individuals to have their records suspended. But make no mistake, those records still exist.
“They can still be accessed by certain government agencies,” explains Owusu-Bempah. “And can be reversed if the individual were to commit and be convicted for another offense in the future.”
“One of the problems is that even though these pardons are free, and even though there’s less of a wait time, it’s still a relatively onerous process,” Owusu-Bempah says. Records need to be found, accessed and retrieved. Fingerprints need to be taken, paid for and sent to Ottawa. If you live in a different city than your conviction, you may need to travel or authorize a third party to inquire for these records to act on your behalf.
There’s also the fact that these pardons favour those with greater access. “People that have been pushed to the fringes of our society…are going to have the toughest time actually benefiting from the policy itself.
Owusu-Bempah believes that what we really need is expungement — not just a record suspension. “Expungement is definitely something that we continue to advocate for at Cannabis Amnesty,” Owusu-Bempah says. “And it’s part of the model that we see developing in certain jurisdictions in the United States, but we don’t have expungement here. Not for this crime anyway.”
“If we look backwards, it’s been marginalized and racialized Canadians in this country who’ve been most harmed by drug law enforcement and by prohibition,” Owusu-Bempah adds. As a trained criminologist, Owusu-Bempah explores the experiences of racialized people with policing and the criminal justice system. He maintains that we cannot separate injustice and policing from drug laws and prohibition. Both are, as he describes, “key drivers of the inequality we see in the criminal justice system.”
The same system of inequality is apparent when we discuss cannabis-related arrests in Canada. “Black and indigenous people in this country were disproportionately arrested for cannabis possession offenses,” Owusu-Bempah says. “And those are the groups who have disproportionately been affected by prohibition.”
People who lived in more privileged neighborhoods were less likely to have been arrested.
Race, however, is not the only identifier that played a role in arrests. Owusu-Bempah emphasizes that poverty and economic status are also factors. “Many of those people who lived in more privileged neighborhoods were less likely to have been arrested,” Owusu-Bempah states. “We know that based on how the police exercise their discretion.”
What’s worse is that people of higher economic status are more likely to avoid convictions. As Owusu-Bempah explains, a person’s economic privilege also makes them more likely to have access to good legal counsel, and good legal counsel can often lead to charges being dropped.
Unfortunately, socioeconomic and racial disparities can lead to lifelong repercussions including barriers to employment and educational opportunities, as well as financial strain. And, given the challenges of securing a pardon for cannabis charges, advocacy for easier access to pardons, and even full expungement, continues.