Late last year, Reuters reporter Anna Mehler Paperny tweeted a few passages from an interview with former Toronto police chief and Ontario police commissioner Julian Fantino on his new executive role at Aleafia Total Health Network, a medical marijuana company. The snippets never made it into the eventual piece, but they tell a story all their own.
At one point, Paperny asks Fantino about the disproportionate number of people of colour, particularly young Black men, who are charged with the possession of marijuana, which is still technically a crime. “Don’t they deserve a second chance?” she asks.
“Well, I can’t speak to that,” he responds, before going on to speak about how he’s given people from “all races, all walks of life, a lot of breaks” in his career.
Mahler presses again, pointing out that police data proves a discrepancy exists.
“I can’t say I agree with that statement, because I have no basis from which to agree or disagree,” Fantino says. “I never counted this versus that; I never kept score. So I don’t know the data you’re talking about.”
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Fantino may not personally have been keeping score, but the Toronto and Ontario police services he headed throughout the 2000s certainly were. After analyzing 10 years’ worth of FOI-requested data, the Toronto Star reported last summer that Black individuals made up 25 per cent of possession charges in the city, although they accounted for only 8.4 per cent of the city’s population at the time. Fifteen per cent of those arrested were detained for bail hearings — the same was true for only about 6 per cent of white individuals arrested for possession. A Vice News report published from earlier this month suggests that Indigenous men and women are also overrepresented and that the larger trend is true of the rest of the country — this even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in 2015 that his government intended to legalize weed for recreational use. And such overrepresentation persists despite the fact that studies have shown that the rate of cannabis sale and use doesn’t differ widely across different racial groups.
As thousands of legalization supporters gathered across the country on April 20 to celebrate marijuana’s last unofficial holiday before the drug is greenlighted for recreational use later this summer, it’s important that we don’t forget or ignore this inequality — if we do, we’ll be destined to reproduce it in the ways legal weed is regulated, sold, and policed.
That’s just what has happened in jurisdictions where weed has been legal for some time. A January 2018 report by New York-based nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance found that in the eight U.S. states where the drug is cleared for recreational use, overall marijuana-related arrests or convictions have declined sharply, but the rates of racial disparity among those arrested haven’t changed all that much. Black Americans, disproportionately targeted in America’s war on drugs, are effectively absent from the country’s multi-billion-dollar legal weed industry: less than 1 per cent of the thousands of legal dispensaries in the U.S. are owned by Black entrepreneurs. The fact that nearly all the companies currently licensed to produce and sell marijuana for medicinal use in Canada reflect the same homogeneity does not bode well for the future of the industry in this regard.
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Annamaria Enenajor, a criminal defence lawyer at Ruby Schiller & Enenajor, points out that some U.S. jurisdictions have launched equity-based programs intended either to clear histories of marijuana-related charges or to prioritize would-be business owners who would otherwise be hindered by a history of charges or a lack of capital.
She’d like to see Canada do something similar on a federal level, particularly for people who have been charged with possession. Such a charge will have lingering effects on people’s lives long after it ceases to be a crime, and disproportionately affects people of colour.
“In order to participate in the legal economy of cannabis, you can’t have had a conviction under the Controlled Substances Act over the past 10 years,” she says. “What that effectively does in the legalization process is excludes people most harmed by [the previous] regulation.”
As it stands now, in order to participate in the legal cannabis business, those with a possession record must apply for an individual pardon, which involves a $600 application fee and also requires one to thoroughly and effectively advocate for oneself in a legal setting — something not everyone has the means or resources to do.
On May 5, Enenajor and a team of advocates will launch an initiative called the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty to push the federal government to pardon all marijuana possession charges once the drug becomes legal later this summer.
“The reason we’re advocating is because of the impact the criminal record has on someone’s life — to hold a job, volunteer, travel, take part in society,” says Enenajor. To proceed with weed legalization in Canada without acknowledging that this impact is disproportionately felt by Black and Indigenous peoples, she says, would be “disingenuous.”
“The government needs to focus its attention to the reality that these individuals are in the position they’re in because of disproportionate policing.”