Some economic and reparative progress has been made, but cannabis justice is not possible until policing stops unfairly targeting Black Canadians.

Ten months before cannabis was legalized last October, I asked a question: Where are Black Canadians in the cannabis debate? I sought to stimulate active involvement of Canada’s Black communities in our country’s cannabis conversation while explaining the socio-systemic barriers that might account for why African Canadians were not playing a more prominent role in the public and private developments of legalization.

Now, more than a year since legalization, with the market about to move into its second phase with the introduction of edibles, I’m pleased to see that there is progress. There has been a notable change in the volume of Black voices and interests in our country’s cannabis conversations, and that involvement and influence of Black perspectives has been meaningful.

However, with the exception of some shining examples, the interests of Canada’s communities of African descent have largely remained sidelined, secondary or silent in mainstream conversations on cannabis legalization in Canada. Some things have changed, but many largely remain the same.

Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty

The most important shift for Black Canadians impacted by cannabis legalization might just be the meteoric rise of the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty (CCA), which got going a few months before legalization and was pivotal to getting the passage of Bill C-93, an Act to provide no-cost, expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis, which came into effect in August 2019. Led by its gifted and tenacious director, a young Black lawyer named Annamaria Enenajor, the campaign garnered nation-wide support from the public, politicians and leading cannabis corporations including Aurora, DOJA and HEXO.

The act allows for anyone convicted of simple possession of cannabis for offences committed before October 17, 2018, to apply for and receive a record suspension more quickly than would typically be permitted under the Criminal Records Act. It also waives the $631 fee to do it.

It’s an important step forward, the CCA says, but the act does not meet the campaign’s standard for fair and effective cannabis amnesty. Here’s why:

  • Records are not suspended automatically; they have to be applied for, placing the burden on those convicted to undertake the costly and arduous administrative tasks associated with preparing an application, including locating, requesting and retrieving records from various law enforcement agencies to support their application for a cannabis record suspension.
  • The new act merely suspends records; it does not expunge them. The record of conviction continues to exist, with potentially disastrous life consequences. It can compromise an individual’s ability to cross the border, obtain employment and housing, or secure custody of their child. It might also impact interactions with a police officer, whose database search could still show the criminal record and the suspension.
  • Suspensions can be revoked, the CCA notes, whereas an expungement permanently wipes clean the record, which it argues is necessary to help to rectify the racist targeting of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities, which has led to disproportionately high numbers of these communities’ members receiving cannabis convictions.

The campaign is pushing to have blanket expungement for everyone convicted of simple cannabis possession in non-violent circumstances. At the very least, it would like to see blanket pardons. Its efforts are part of a commitment to helping undo the harms caused by the criminalization of cannabis and its enforcement, which the CCA recognizes has disproportionately targeted Black, Indigenous and other vulnerable members of society. In particular, the CCA’s work has significantly raised awareness of the disproportionate impact on Black communities.

And some progress is better than none. Black Canadians stand to benefit from the Act as it is. But the CCA intends to ardently advocate until the abovementioned serious limitations in the Act are adequately addressed.

By focusing almost exclusively on eliminating Canadians’ past records for simple cannabis possession, the CCA has taken a decidedly retroactive approach to what is being increasingly called “reefer reparations.”

African Canadian voices in the cannabis conversation

However, since Canada legalized cannabis, our country has also seen the emergence and amplification of African Canadian voices calling for a restorative approach to correcting the damage done by cannabis prohibition. Leading among those voices have been Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Robyn Maynard, Chuka Ejeckam and Roberta K. Timothy.

Drawing largely on research and analysis of developments of cannabis legalization in other jurisdictions such as Colorado, each of them has independently offered a range of ideas for reefer reparations, all with a focused increase in Black participation in the newly legalized cannabis economy. More specifically, they are focused on rectifying the anti-Black criminalization that characterized the Canadian war on drugs. They are doing so by advocating for Black individuals and communities to get equitable access to the profits of the new cannabis markets after decades of unfairly bearing most of the burdens of cannabis prohibition, which has damaged Black communities socio-economically.

“Another critical component of achieving cannabis justice for Black communities in the new cannabis economy must focus on increasing the collection, public reporting and accessibility of race-based disaggregated data on all things cannabis.”

For instance, Maynard suggests “public funds generated by legalization (be invested) in housing and in closing other gaps that have disenfranchised Black communities, instead of increasing police presence on the streets.” This echoes solutions suggested by Ejeckam, who has argued that “publicly funded reparations programs for loans, education and employment also need to be part of the next steps, as they could begin to repair the restricted life-course outcomes that result from a criminal record.”

Another critical component of achieving cannabis justice for Black communities in the new cannabis economy must focus on increasing the collection, public reporting and accessibility of race-based disaggregated data on all things cannabis, a topic explored by Bempah and Timothy. Because the legalization of cannabis has increased the number of drug-related activities that are explicitly criminalized, both these scholars argue that data collection must become a priority for Canada to ensure that criminalization of Black communities doesn’t continue or become more pernicious while non-Black communities walk away with all the profits.

Beyond fairness and transparency in the criminal justice system, these scholars have also argued that the cannabis industry should collect demographic data on everything from employees, investors, contracts and social impact indicators, meaning the communities and organizations that cannabis companies support through charitable donations and other philanthropic activities. This demographic data could help to ensure meaningful inclusion of Black individuals and communities in the benefits of Canada’s cannabis legalization.

Persistent problems with policing

The rise and reverberation of these Black voices on Canadian cannabis legalization is welcome.  But while the cannabis economy has changed, policing practices have not in large part. The promise of cannabis profits having any meaningful impact on Black communities will go unfulfilled so long as policing in Canada continues to disproportionately target, monitor, surveil and engage Black communities through racial profiling, street checks, carding and excessive use of lethal force. The CCA and the advocates whose views have been shared here are in agreement on this front.

In other words, because the criminalization of Black people remains perniciously prevalent in Canadian society, cannabis legalization offers little to no benefit to Black communities. Sadly, this point is evidenced by a case that unfolded as recently as the end of October: Akeem Gardner is a licensed hemp grower near Orangeville, Ont., whose bank, Toronto-Dominion, froze his accounts and accused him of carrying on illicit activity. Gardener says he was judged by his appearance as a young Black man, after he made a transfer of $35,000. TD later admitted it “incorrectly” flagged his account.

Photo: Superstar rapper Drake is getting into the cannabis business. Shutterstock.com

One bright spot on the legal cannabis landscape is Drake’s new venture. The world-renowned Canadian rapper has partnered with Canadian cannabis corporation Canopy Growth to launch the More Life Growth Company, a fully licensed producer. The announcement is interesting, and has much potential for Canada’s Black communities if More Life Growth becomes a corporate citizen that tries to help facilitate corporate access for Black Canadians previously criminalized through cannabis prohibition.

Still, Drake has been criticized for trafficking on the cultural capital of Black Canadian youth and communities more than investing in improving their material conditions. Many who’ve followed Drake’s record of philanthropy are likely to have hopes that are starting from the bottom. For what it’s worth, I hold a critical hope that this venture can be vehicle for Drake to address concerns that he has not done enough for Canada’s Black communities. 

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By and large, very few African Canadians are in a position to directly profit from the industry by, for example, securing a retail license, becoming a licensed producer to grow cannabis, or even selling cannabis accessories. Growing levels of generational poverty, unemployment and economic disadvantage are dominant experiences among Canada’s Black communities. The tragic irony is that this economically depressed reality has in meaningful measure been caused by the criminalization of Black communities through the policing of cannabis.

Sadly, none of this has penetrated the mainstream developments in Canada’s corporatization of cannabis, leaving those getting into the industry to typically be white men, while Black communities are left behind, unable to try to profit from cannabis legalization or use it as a way to improve conditions in their under-served racialized communities.

A year after legalization, I can say that the new cannabis economy offers positive economic and reparative prospects for Black communities. But without serious social, legal, policy and economically reform, Black people won’t meaningfully benefit from the new cannabis economy even now as we approach the next phase, the legalization of edibles.

Perhaps I asked the wrong question back in January 2018. Maybe the more appropriate question is “Where are Black profits in the cannabis debate?”

This article is part of The Making of a Cannabis Industry: Year One special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock by Christopher Gardiner


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