How cannabis equity can help make up for the racism of the War on Drugs

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As Canada legs it toward Legalization Day, calls for cannabis amnesty have gotten progressively louder as people wonder why a half-million Canadians should continue being punished with criminal records for something that’s no longer a crime. But pardons alone can’t make things right because they don’t address the racially biased enforcement of pot prohibition.

And yes, when it comes to bias, we are as bad on this front as our American cousins. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged as much last year while sharing a story about his late brother Michel’s pot bust.

“My dad had a couple of connections, and we were confident that my little brother wasn’t going to be saddled with a criminal record for life,” Mr. Trudeau sheepishly told a young black man facing possession charges at a town hall in Toronto. “One of the fundamental unfairnesses of this current system is that it affects different communities in a different way.”

Liberal pot czar, MP Bill Blair, has gone even further. “One of the great injustices in this country is the disparity and the disproportionality of the enforcement of these laws and the impact it has on minority communities, Aboriginal communities and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods,” the former Toronto police chief has admitted.

Indeed, black Torontonians without priors are reportedly three times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, while black people in Halifax are five times more likely and Indigenous residents of Regina are nine times more likely. In fact, prohibition’s racist underpinnings date back to famed feminist Emily Murphy’s 1922 book The Black Candle. Believed to have inspired Canada’s cannabis ban 14 years before that of the United States, Ms. Murphy painted a conspiracy theory about “aliens of colour” using drugs to “bring about the downfall of the white race.” Her chapter on “Marahuana – A New Menace” claimed users became “raving maniacs liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without … any sense of moral responsibility.”

So what can we do to really correct past wrongs?

Enter cannabis equity, a progressive policy spreading across the United States to ameliorate the unequal damage caused by the drug war. Through preferential licensing and financial support, it helps communities most affected by anti-pot laws access a level playing field in the now-legal industry.

It’s needed because the people getting rich off cannabis legalization sure don’t look like the ones who’ve been disproportionately punished for building that market in the first place. Only 4.3 per cent of American cannabis businesses are black-owned, and here in Canada, almost all of our licensed producers and recreational retailers are run by white men.

As rapper Jay-Z put it in a 2016 NY Times op-ed, “venture capitalists migrate to these [legal] states to open multibillion-dollar operations, but former felons can’t open a dispensary.”

To prevent the diverse underground market from becoming completely whitewashed en route to corporate legitimacy, equity goes beyond issuing pardons for possession and helps marginalized people, including growers and sellers, transition into above-ground bud businesses.

The concept started in Oakland, Calif., where black residents are 30 per cent of the population but accounted for 77 per cent of marijuana arrests in 2015, and 90 per cent two decades ago. (Medical cannabis was legalized in the nineties in California and recreational use legalized in January.)

Oakland decided to reserve half its dispensary and cultivation licences for low-income residents with cannabis-related convictions and/or from overpoliced neighbourhoods. It also waives permit fees and offers free rent and zero-interest loans to address their lack of access to capital. “I’d measure success in the families who have lived under intergenerational poverty come out of that poverty through business ownership,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told Politico.

Store employees, media, and supporters are seen outside the Cannabis Culture store on Church Street during a police raid in Toronto on March 9, 2017.

AARON VINCENT ELKAIM

Admittedly, the roll-out hasn’t been totally smooth, thanks to some bureaucratic bungling and a few failed “incubation partnerships.” (Non-equity companies were offered incentives to provide assistance and business space to applicants, but these promises aren’t always fulfilled owing to ambivalence or delays.)

Then there’s the lack of formal business experience. “The truth is those people who were interacting with cannabis in a black-market scenario, they don’t necessarily have business skills,” Cannabis At Work CEO Alison McMahon told me. “So you say to this person, ‘We’ve got this great opportunity, go build this business!’” But it’s tough, she said, as they don’t have that skill set.

That’s what inspired Oakland’s Hood Incubator, a non-profit providing business accelerators and educational workshops for people of colour as well as compiling best practices so future jurisdictions can avoid these problems. Cannabis equity is now in the works in Washington, and in the states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. New programs in Sacramento, Calif., and Massachusetts are prioritizing professional development.

Meanwhile in Canada, we’re not prioritizing any of it, despite the same racial inequities plaguing our justice system and access to the legal industry.

Background checks are already keeping most with underground-market experience locked out of employment in the legal sector, although Alberta is making an exception to allow people with minor possession convictions – but not cultivation or distribution – into the retail space and B.C. is giving legal licences to some grey-market dispensaries.

As well, Manitoba is incentivizing Indigenous cannabis business opportunities with a “hybrid model” for retail that gives approval preference to retailers with First Nations partnerships. But there are no specific efforts to help those who have suffered targeted police enforcement join the new cannabis economy through targeted licences, training and financial assistance.

There’s still time to start cannabis-equity programs while provincial plans are falling into place and the industry is finding its feet, especially in Ontario where bricks-and-mortar private retail is delayed until spring. Ending prohibition and offering amnesty are the right things to do. But to actually make the future fair, we must make up for the past and bring equality to Canada’s brave, new legal-weed world.

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