As cannabis is legalized, let’s remember amnesty

Weed, spliff, cannabis, joint, blunt, Mary Jane, ganja, reefer, marijuana, pot: no matter what you call it, it is almost legal in Canada. Many will benefit from the new right to grow, sell or smoke legally and freely.

Before we celebrate, let’s take a moment to remember the Black and Indigenous peoples who have been overrepresented in Canada’s cannabis-related arrests, despite similar rates of cannabis use across racial groups. According to a 2017 Toronto Star report:

“Black people with no history of criminal convictions have been three times more likely to be arrested by Toronto police for possession of small amounts of marijuana than white people with similar backgrounds…”

A Vice report filed by Rachel Browne looked at statistics from 2015-17 and found that:

“Indigenous people in Regina were nearly nine times more likely to get arrested for cannabis possession than white people during that time period.”

The Cannabis Act (Bill C–45), informed by the recommendations of the Task Force on Cannabis, creates a legal framework for “controlling the production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis in Canada.”

Although use of cannabis is spread evenly among racial identities, Black and Indigenous people are more likely than white folks to be arrested for using it. Thought Catalog/Unsplash, CC BY

The act, however, does not discuss cannabis amnesty. Cannabis amnesty is the clearing or turning over of previous convictions of cannabis “crimes” that occurred before the legislation took effect.

Cannabis has a long history of being used to criminalize African, Indigenous and racialized peoples in Canada and globally. The lack of redress in Canada’s Bill C-45 for those convicted of marijuana charges indicates Canada’s continuation of these racist policies and processes.

While there are some critical discussions among African or Black scholars, lawyers and activists, the history of who has been criminalized has largely been ignored or silenced in the current legalization debates.

A continuum of colonial tragedies

Despite the absence of race in the legal debates, some media and academics have linked racism and the decriminalization of cannabis in Canada.

Robyn Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present eloquently discusses the historical and current realities of anti-Black racism (and Black resistance) through state-sanctioned violence. Maynard connects drug incarcerations with child incarcerations (in the form of Children Aids Society apprehensions) and other racist systemic practices that continue to harm mostly African and Indigenous families.

In addition to the Toronto Star and Vice reports, articles in the National Post and the Guardian question why the new legislation does not address past and more recent marijuana convictions and criminalization.

In addition to the Toronto Star and Vice reports, articles in the National Post and the Guardian question why the new legislation does not address past and more recent marijuana convictions and criminalization.

Other news stories that link racism to the criminalization of cannabis have come out of the CBC, Macleans and Now. But much more research and discussion about the impacts of both the criminalization and the decriminalization of cannabis on Black and Indigenous communities is needed.

There has been a deliberate campaign to criminalize racialized groups in Canada and the United States, and the criminalization of cannabis use has been part of this.

Many members of the Black and Indigenous communities feel outrage, anger and distress at the historically racist legislation. They now feel excluded from its possible resolution.

Roberta has worked as a consultant for the past X years. Some of her areas of specialization include women abuse; child, youth, and adult violence; intersectional identities, critical expressive arts, multiple oppressions, transgenerational trauma, and resilience/resistance work.

Roberta is Co-Director of Continuing Healing Consultants and has engaged in anti-oppression consulting in the Toronto and global communities since 1997. She is also co-founder and trainer of Anti-Oppression Psychotherapy™.

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