Pot power Oak­land pro­gram pushes equal op­por­tu­nity on le­gal weed

Time to re­dress the harm done to thou­sands of Black youth who have life-lim­it­ing crim­i­nal records be­cause of pot

NOW Magazine - - CONTENTS - By NEIL PRICE Neil Price is a doc­toral stu­dent at OISE and au­thor of the Com­mu­nity Assess­ment of Po­lice Prac­tices (CAPP) re­port on card­ing. news@now­toronto.com | @now­toronto

The war on drugs has had a dev­as­tat­ing and dis­pro­por­tion­ate ef­fect on racial­ized groups, par­tic­u­larly young Black men.

While re­search has shown that Black peo­ple par­take in recre­ational pot at the same rates as their white coun­ter­parts, it’s Black peo­ple who have en­dured the heavy hand of jus­tice. Black peo­ple are twice as likely to be taken to a po­lice sta­tion af­ter be­ing charged for sim­ple pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana. They are also twice as likely to be held overnight for a bail hearing.

Those are just two ex­am­ples of how racism has un­der­pinned the state’s failed war on drugs, a fail­ure that has re­sulted in count­less Black youth be­ing crim­i­nal­ized for do­ing what 20 per cent of the Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion does mostly un­fet­tered.

As the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pre­pares to le­gal­ize recre­ational cannabis next year, for­mer politi­cians, lawyers, prime min­is­ters and se­nior po­lice of­fi­cers have lined up to cash in as in­vestors and ad­vi­sors to li­censed med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­duc­ers.

Of course, the guys I grew up with who sold the stuff on the street are bur­dened with crim­i­nal records and other prob­lems and don’t stand a chance in the le­gal­ized in­dus­try.

What ex­actly are the var­i­ous lev­els

The task force re­port on le­gal­iza­tion does dis­cuss op­por­tu­ni­ties for In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

of gov­ern­ment plan­ning to do to re­dress the harm done to thou­sands of Black youth who have re­ceived life­lim­it­ing crim­i­nal records due to recre­ational pot? More specif­i­cally, how will prof­its from the pro­jected $23-bil­lion in­dus­try be di­verted to those most ad­versely af­fected by bad drug pol­icy?

As Univer­sity of Toronto so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Ak­wasi Owusu-Bem­pah points out in a re­cent Toronto Star op-ed, cannabis pos­ses­sion has given po­lice a broad pre­text to probe fur­ther into the lives of Black youth more so than any other crim­i­nal of­fense. Com­bined with card­ing, this has meant pos­ses­sion charges be­come the lead­ing “gate­way” to crim­i­nal records that af­fect the mo­bil­ity, em­ploy­ment and qual­ity of life prospects of count­less Black peo­ple, writes Owusu-Bem­pah.

De­spite grow­ing calls for “pote­quity,” fed­eral cannabis czar, Bill Blair, Toronto’s for­mer po­lice chief (and pro­po­nent of card­ing), has been silent on the eq­uity issue, say­ing only that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will look at the pos­si­bil­ity of grant­ing par­dons af­ter le­gal­iza­tion comes into ef­fect. As it stands, those con­victed of mar­i­juana-re­lated of­fenses, with the ex­cep­tion (maybe) of mi­nor of­fenses, would cur­rently not qual­ify to be- come li­censed pro­duc­ers.

But par­dons are only one part of a just and eq­ui­table cannabis le­gal­iza­tion frame­work. What’s needed is a com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy that en­sures peo­ple have op­tions.

An eq­uity-based ap­proach to le­gal­iza­tion would in­clude fi­nan­cial, gov­ern­ment and ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tives that share the same pur­pose and out­comes.

Banks, for ex­am­ple, which will no doubt ben­e­fit from the le­gal pot econ­omy, could cre­ate low-in­ter­est loan pro­grams.

Gov­ern­ment could rein­vest cannabis-gen­er­ated tax rev­enues into com­mu­nity pro­grams that pro­vide harm-re­duc­tion and preven­tion pro­grams where they’re needed.

And the post-se­condary ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, par­tic­u­larly col­leges, could play a huge role in train­ing those in­ter­ested in study­ing cannabis cul­ti­va­tion and business start-up through cus­tom­ized pro­grams. Th­ese are just a few ideas that are be­ing dis­cussed in the Black com­mu­nity. But it’s trou­bling that we’re not hearing them come from gov­ern­ment.

Anne McLel­lan, who chaired the fed­eral Task Force on Cannabis Le­gal­iza­tion and Reg­u­la­tion, says that the prov­inces will have to de­cide whether eq­uity ap­proaches are in­cluded in any fu­ture reg­u­la­tions.

“I have spo­ken pub­licly about my be­lief that a con­vic­tion for sim­ple pos­ses­sion should not au­to­mat­i­cally deny some­one the op­por­tu­nity to ap­ply for a fed­eral li­cense to be­come a li­censed pro­ducer,” she tells NOW. Her re­port does dis­cuss the im­por­tance of the Gov­ern­ment of Canada con­sult­ing with In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties about both op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges af­ter le­gal­iza­tion.

Other ju­ris­dic­tions have tack­led this issue head on.

With the pass­ing of Cal­i­for­nia’s Propo­si­tion 64, which le­gal­ized recre­ational cannabis use in 2016, Oak­land ush­ered in an Eq­uity Per­mit Pro­gram, which en­sures that peo­ple who have crim­i­nal records due to cannabis pos­ses­sion are given pref­er­en­tial treat­ment when ap­ply­ing for per­mits to sell the drug legally. The pro­gram sets aside 50 per cent of the city-is­sued li­censes to those af­fected by drug laws, ef­fec­tively giv­ing yes­ter­day’s street cor­ner pot dealer a fairer chance at be­com­ing to­mor­row’s cannabis en­tre­pre­neur.

This wasn’t ex­actly a pop­u­lar idea, but then again eq­uity-seek­ing so­cial poli­cies never are. The big­gest push­back to Oak­land’s pro­gram came pre­dictably from business groups al­ready es­tab­lished in the city’s cannabis in­dus­try. They view the eq­uity pro­gram as a di­rect threat to their bot­tom line and have been vo­cal in want­ing to see its scope lim­ited if not en­tirely re­versed.

And it’s not just re­tail op­por­tu­ni­ties that are at stake. What about the other spin-off busi­nesses that stand to ben­e­fit from cannabis le­gal­iza­tion? Does any­one at Toronto’s city coun­cil have what it takes to lead on that front?

Mayor John Tory wants in on the pot action. He wrote On­tario Pre­mier Kathleen Wynne re­cently de­tail­ing how he’d like the city’s cof­fers to grow via a special pot levy. But he doesn’t seem par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in eq­uity, and is fo­cused in­stead, says his direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions Don Peat, on is­sues like rules around smok­ing in pub­lic, en­force­ment and prox­im­ity of re­tail mar­i­juana out­lets to schools and com­mu­nity cen­tres.

Hu­man rights lawyer An­thony Mor­gan says gov­ern­ment should be think­ing more broadly about how to re­al­ize eq­uity-fo­cused re­sponses to le­gal­iza­tion. He wants to see cannabis-gen­er­ated rev­enues set aside to help young peo­ple ac­cess op­por­tu­ni­ties beyond the cannabis in­dus­try.

“This is a multi-sys­temic issue,” says Mor­gan. “Our re­sponses also have to be multi-sys­temic.”

Mor­gan be­lieves civil so­ci­ety and Black ac­tivists have key roles to play. He’s not con­vinced we will see an eq­uity ap­proach with­out their push.

Mean­while, ev­ery­one else is al­ready swoop­ing in to make a killing.

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