Amnesty for marijuana arrests must be part of new legislation: Tiffany Gooch

Enterprise consultant Tiffany Gooch’s column originally appeared at The Toronto Star on May 28, 2017. 

Marijuana legalization was a key pillar of the Liberal platform in the 2015 election and the successful implementation of this promise will be a defining moment for the Trudeau government and its legacy.

The definition of success for this mammoth policy file varies greatly depending on who is being consulted. Businesses large and small are jockeying for influence in the new cannabis economy. Provincial governments are watching closely to identify their own steps forward. Border cities are grappling with the tourism implications. Mental health advocates are calling for health-focused regulations.

A Nanos Research poll released last week revealed that a whopping 62 per cent of Canadians are in support of pardons for those carrying a criminal record for marijuana possession.

The federal Liberal government has been worryingly evasive on the topic of amnesty. While amnesty was not among the promises made in the Liberal platform, it’s simply the right thing to do.

As the government moves to legalize marijuana, thousands of Canadians will continue to carry criminal records for simple possession thereby excluding them from employment opportunities, including jobs created in the new cannabis economy.

Currently, individuals carrying a criminal record for simple possession are eligible for record suspension five years after the completion of their sentence. A proactive amnesty plan would take a blanket approach to ensure fairness, specifically for marginalized Canadians disproportionately impacted by the current system.

This is a race issue. Not because more minorities use marijuana illegally, but because we are more likely to be targeted by police and caught carrying. Moving forward with legalization without a formal commitment to amnesty only serves to further disadvantage marginalized communities.

The talking points federal ministers are using centre largely on the protection of youth. In the final report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation the words “children” and “youth” appeared 224 times, while marginalized Canadians were given six honourable mentions. There is no mention of race at all in the 106-page framework released in November of 2016.

Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, was appointed the government lead on the cannabis legalization initiative. In February, he was quoted in the National Post saying “disparate and disproportional police enforcement of marijuana laws and the impact on minority communities is ‘One of the great injustices in this country.’ ” He left the door open to amnesty as an issue to be discussed “in the future.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale provided a glimpse into government intentions on proactive pardons when he stated in a CBC interview last month that it was not on the agenda “at the moment.”

I’m perplexed as to how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his recent VICE interview could acknowledge that minority and marginalized communities are unfairly impacted by cannabis criminalization and tell a story about how his father helped his brother get off for a possession charge, if not to conclude that amnesty is the only just solution.

Even the C.D. Howe Institute recommended the pardoning of individuals who have been convicted for illegal possession, granted that they have not been convicted or charged for any other offence under the Criminal Code.

Canada has an opportunity to be a world leader in progressive pot policy. Amnesty should be central to our legalization plan, instead of an afterthought. Tax revenue could be earmarked for reintegration services and employment supports in marginalized communities.

With a majority government and clear public support, the only remaining barrier the Liberals face on the issue of amnesty is time. The self-imposed legalization deadline is July 1, 2018. Planning for amnesty alongside legalization would be a logistical nightmare; but not impossible.

This government has a lot to consider when weighing the complex impacts marijuana legalization will have on our country. The task ahead is challenging. But in the words of Prime Minister Trudeau, “Canada is supposed to be fair for everyone.”

I hope the prime minister will find the moral courage to do the right thing and commit publicly to an amnesty program and timeline.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email