On October 17, recreational marijuana was legalized in Canada under the Cannabis Act. The Act makes it illegal to possess more than 30 grams of cannabis in public, meaning that possession of the drug will still be policed. Legalization comes after almost a decade of Harper’s conservative “tough-on- crime” policies, which aimed to increase public safety via mandatory minimum sentencing, even for minor offences. Under these policies, a large number of people, most of whom were Black and Indigenous, have been charged with, or incarcerated for, the possession of cannabis. A recent overview of certain provincial statistics regarding the racial dimension of cannabis- related arrests has shown clear racial disparities. Under the new policy, it is likely that racialized communities will still be targeted disproportionately by police for drug offences. Legalization alone will not end or rectify unjust criminalization.
The Canadian government recently promised to provide pardons for those charged with cannabis- related offences. Although the government has waived the $631 fee to apply for a pardon and the standard three-year waiting period, there has been no timeline released as to when the pardons will be put into effect. In addition, the government will not be expunging these charges from people’s records as they did with Bill C-66*, meaning the records of these charges will not be destroyed. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stated that “the laws with respect to cannabis that have existed historically […] are out of step with current mores and views in Canada, but are not of the same nature as the historic social injustice that was imposed in relation to the LGBTQ2 community.” Even after receiving a pardon, a person once arrested for cannabis possession would still have to check the box “convicted of a criminal offence” on housing and employment applications. This contributes to unfair economic discrimination against people of colour, further barring them from accessing housing and employment.
People of colour have had, and will continue to have, a higher chance of being punished under the law for the possession of cannabis. Canada needs to critically address and dismantle the pervading racial bias found in policing. Even if cannabis-related charges are pardoned, this does not make up for the lives negatively affected either by racial profiling or imprisonment. We have a responsibility to push our elected officials to not only pardon, but also expunge, previous convictions.
Although many are celebrating the Cannabis Act, there is more that needs to be done. We encourage you to copy this editorial and email it to your elected officials. You will find the contact information of members of Parliament and members of the National Assembly on this website: www.ourcommons.ca/parliamentarians/ en/constituencies/FindMP.
*Bill C-66 expunged the criminal records of those arrested for consensual sexual activity between same- sex partners.