Cannabis

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY TRAVIS LUPICK

An un­usual as­pect of Canada’s soon-to-be-le­gal cannabis mar­ket is that the ac­tivists who led the le­gal­iza­tion move­ment may find them­selves ex­cluded from the in­dus­try for which their ef­forts paved the way.

Van­cou­ver ac­tivists like Jodie and Marc Emery and dis­pen­sary pi­o­neer Don Briere, for ex­am­ple, have crim­i­nal records for pos­sess­ing and sell­ing mar­i­juana. Now those crim­i­nal records could be used against them in fed­eral and pro­vin­cial li­cens­ing sys­tems that are un­der de­vel­op­ment to de­cide who gets to cul­ti­vate and sell recre­ational cannabis.

An­other 23,329 peo­ple across the coun­try were charged with mar­i­juana of­fences in 2016 alone, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada. So the ques­tion of whether or not those of­fences will pro­hibit par­tic­i­pa­tion in mar­i­juana sales is one that af­fects a lot of peo­ple.

On Fe­bru­ary 5, the B.C. gov­ern­ment re­leased its first batch of de­tailed rules for recre­ational cannabis and went a long way in ad­dress­ing ac­tivists’ con­cerns for those with crim­i­nal records.

“Back­ground checks of po­lice/ crim­i­nal records which will be ex­am­ined on a case by case ba­sis,” reads a pro­vin­cial li­cens­ing guide for would-be pri­vate-re­tail op­er­a­tors.

“Hav­ing a record of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity will not nec­es­sar­ily ex­clude you from ob­tain­ing a li­cence,” it con­tin­ues. “Low risk crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity may not ex­clude a per­son from be­com­ing a li­censee whereas as­so­ci­a­tions with or­ga­nized crime will ex­clude a per­son from be­com­ing a li­censee.”

Kirk Tou­saw is a Van­cou­ver-based lawyer who spe­cial­izes in drug pol­icy. In a tele­phone in­ter­view, he de­scribed the guide­lines as good news.

“I’m hope­ful that the pi­o­neers are not go­ing to be ex­cluded,” he said in ref­er­ence to ac­tivists like the Emerys. “If they are pre­vented from do­ing so, then I think we’ll have a fail­ure of im­ple­men­ta­tion.”

Tou­saw ar­gued it’s a jus­tice is­sue that’s larger than how re­tail li­cences are as­signed.

“If you’ve been charged with a crime and con­victed and you’ve served your sen­tence, you’ve paid your debt to so­ci­ety,” he ex­plained. “When your sen­tence is done, I don’t think it’s ap­pro­pri­ate for the ex­is­tence of that crim­i­nal record to then pre­vent you from par­tic­i­pat­ing in a law­ful busi­ness in the fu­ture.”

Ian Wad­dell, a for­mer B.C. MLA and lob­by­ist for the dis­pen­sary in­dus­try, sug­gested that Ot­tawa should act to pre­vent any pos­si­bil­ity of the prov­inces mak­ing crim­i­nal records an is­sue.

“The fed­eral gov­ern­ment could pass some sort of amnesty,” he ex­plained.

“If the feds don’t come across with some sort of blan­ket amnesty—and I wouldn’t hold my breath on that—the so­lu­tion might be for the prov­ince and the ci­ties, when they’re grant­ing li­cences, to give it a fairly lib­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion.”

Last De­cem­ber, Jodie Emery pleaded guilty to pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana for the pur­pose of traf­fick­ing and pos­ses­sion of pro­ceeds of crime over $5,000. In a tele­phone in­ter­view, she sug­gested the larger is­sue is a sys­temic prob­lem with how Canada has ap­proached mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion over­all.

Emery ex­plained that the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has fo­cused en­tirely on health and safety. In mak­ing his case for le­gal mar­i­juana, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has sel­dom strayed from two points: first, that le­gal­iza­tion will take mar­i­juana and its pro­ceeds away from or­ga­nized crime; and, sec­ond, that reg­u­la­tion will keep mar­i­juana away from chil­dren.

In stark con­trast, Emery con­tin­ued, U.S. ju­ris­dic­tions work­ing to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana have fo­cused on restora­tive jus­tice, ad­dress­ing racism in­her­ent in the war on drugs and com­pen­sa­tion for wrongs com­mit­ted by law-en­force­ment agen­cies in their ap­pli­ca­tion of mar­i­juana laws against peo­ple of colour.

Emery pointed to Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, for ex­am­ple, which in May 2016 an­nounced it would cre­ate an “eq­uity per­mits” pro­gram to see the city is­sue li­cences to sell cannabis on a ba­sis that ac­tu­ally gives pref­er­ence to ap­pli­cants with past con­vic­tions for mar­i­juana crimes.

More re­cently, San Fran­cisco an­nounced it would dis­miss more than 3,000 con­vic­tions for mis­de­meanour of­fences re­lated to mar­i­juana. In sup­port of the move, Cal­i­for­nia lieu­tenant-gover­nor Gavin New­som said it would help ad­dress a “costly, bro­ken, and racially dis­crim­i­na­tory sys­tem of mar­i­juana crim­i­nal­iza­tion”.

Emery ar­gued that is what is miss­ing from con­ver­sa­tions the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has led on cannabis re­form.

“The Cana­dian le­gal­iza­tion mes­sage com­pletely aban­doned the civil-lib­er­ties ar­gu­ment and the jus­tice side,” she said.

“Fed­eral gov­ern­ment mes­sag­ing has been about how mar­i­juana is dan­ger­ous to so­ci­ety and that’s why they need to le­gal­ize it to pro­tect us from it,” Emery con­tin­ued. “That com­pletely ig­nores the vic­tims of pro­hi­bi­tion and it con­tin­ues the dis­en­fran­chise­ment and un­fair­ness that we should be try­ing to fix by le­gal­iz­ing cannabis.”

Don Briere is the owner of Weeds Glass and Gifts, one of Van­cou­ver’s largest chains of store­front dis­pen­saries. He also has mul­ti­ple con­vic­tions for grow­ing and traf­fick­ing mar­i­juana that go back more than a decade. In a tele­phone in­ter­view, Briere warned that ac­tivists who have led the le­gal­iza­tion move­ment will not be left out of the le­gal in­dus­try with­out a fight.

“We went to jail for this; we fought for these rights,” he said. “So we’ll be fil­ing in court if they don’t treat us fairly.”

Jodie Emery wor­ries that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is not com­ing to the aid of the many vic­tims of pro­hi­bi­tion, in­clud­ing her­self and her hus­band, Marc Emery.

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