The Current

Convicted pot offenders need special access to the legal weed market: sociologist

February 12, 2018

There are growing calls to pardon minor pot convictions, particularly for people in racialized communities that have most strongly felt the effects of the war on drugs. (CBC)
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Should people with pot convictions in their past have special access to the burgeoning legal market? Sociologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah thinks it's important to take this step.  14:42

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As Canada prepares to de-criminalize cannabis, there are growing calls for an amnesty on pot convictions to right past wrongs, and allow access to a burgeoning industry. 

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Currently, proposed regulations enable Health Canada to refuse clearance to individuals associated to organized crime; who have past convictions; or anyone with an association to drug trafficking, corruption or violent offences.

Advocates argue enforcement of drug laws have not been equal to all social groups, and it's necessary to acknowledge a privilege that people in racialized communities don't have.

"Many Canadians, they can use their privilege to shield themselves from criminalization," said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto working on race, crime and criminal justice.

"And then you've got other groups of people, many that I work with, who have been the target of the war on drugs, who have been criminalized, in communities that have been criminalized, and they're now going to be excluded."

'We can use the emerging industry and what's happening here as a way to bring people back into the fold, and repair some of those harms that have been done.' - Akwasi Owusu-Bempah

Equity Permits

In his research, Owusu-Bempah said African-Canadians and Indigenous Canadians are most affected by Canada's drug laws. He suggested Canada implement a model similar to Oakland, California as a way for everyone to have access to the legal business of cannabis.

Oakland has issued what it calls "equity permits," where half of the new permits for cannabis dispensaries are set aside for people from communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs and may have criminal records as a result.

Owusu-Bempah said Canada could issue special classes of licenses that focus specifically on individuals criminalized from communities that have been heavily policed.

'Justin Trudeau is now our prime minister. He admitted to smoking marijuana, not only when just a citizen but when holding high office,' said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A minor pot possession offence is "a gateway to the criminal justice system," Owusu-Bempah told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Not only do you become known to police but even for young people, you're identified as someone who's broken the law in your community, meaning that the parents of good kids might not want their kids playing with you."

This exclusion leads to further conflict with the law and more trouble, argued Owusu-Bempah.

"I think we can use the emerging industry and what's happening here as a way to bring people back into the fold, and repair some of those harms that have been done in a very real way from prohibition."

Breaking down barriers

In Canada, the majority of the 98 licensed producers are run by boards who are predominantly Caucasian males — only two boards are First Nations.

It's this lack of diversity and barriers in the legalized marijuana business that Tyler James is working to change. He's the director of communications for the Eden Medicinal Society, a medical cannabis company, and also the founding director of the Ontario Cannabis Consumer and Retail Alliance. 

There are 98 licensed producers in all of Canada. A majority are run by boards that are predominantly Caucasian males, with only two that are First Nations. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

James agreed with Owusu-Bempah that an equity permit model would be a good start for Canada but added there are barriers that stand in the way for marginalized groups to get in on the ground floor of the legalized cannabis industry.

"Permitting itself is only one piece. You still need to have the access to both capital, and in some instances real estate," he told Tremonti.

Previous convictions, current charges, and stigma also play a role in preventing minority groups to garner investors, said James.

His aim is to mobilize minority groups to get involved with their communities and "really take the lead on this." 

"There's... opportunities, for especially the First Nations communities to meet the demand that will currently exist in the Ontario market because there will be a lack of access."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler, Alison Masemann and Kori Sideaway.

The Current did request the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Bill Blair, the government's point person on pot legalization for interviews. Neither was available.

Health Canada did send us a statement that reads, in part:

Health Canada acknowledges that there are individuals who have histories of non-violent, lower-risk criminal activity (for example, simple possession of cannabis, or small-scale cultivation of cannabis plants) who may seek to obtain a security clearance so they can participate in the legal cannabis industry. Part of the purpose of the consultation that ended in January was to solicit feedback from interested parties on whether these individuals should be permitted to participate in the legal cannabis industry.