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Canada measures successes, failures of legal marijuana

by IAN AUSTEN THE NEW YORK TIMES | January 24, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.

OTTAWA, Ontario -- The recreational use of cannabis was legalized in Canada two years ago. Legalization, the government vowed, would address the inequities in a criminal justice system where marijuana and hashish penalties and prosecutions had fallen disproportionately on marginalized communities, particularly Black Canadians and Indigenous people.

That promise has largely been kept, with legalization essentially ending what Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who studies race and policing in Canada, called the "heavily racialized" arrests for marijuana possession.

But some other key promises, and hopes, that came with Canada being the first industrialized nation to legalize marijuana remain unfulfilled.

The for-profit industry it created has struggled. Pot sales outside the legal system still thrive. Indigenous communities feel their needs are being ignored. And the injustices that came from criminalizing pot in the past have yet to be fully remedied.

Trudeau's pledge to legalize marijuana was not universally welcomed by Canadians, including some members of his Liberal party, who feared it would encourage use of the drug, particularly among teenagers.

But the prime minister persuaded his party and many voters with an argument based on fairness and equality.

The new law has all but eliminated possession charges. In 2018, police recorded 26,402 possession cases until legalization took effect in October. In 2019, that number dropped to 46, according to Statistics Canada. Possessing more than 30 grams of marijuana remains illegal.

A report released in August by the Ontario Human Rights Commission showed just how tied to race cannabis arrests had been before legalization: An analysis of police data found that while Black people made up 8.8% of the population of Toronto, they faced 34% of marijuana possession charges there between 2013 and 2017.

While decriminalizing marijuana possession is viewed as a step toward building a fairer justice system, many charged under the old law are still dealing with the devastating consequences, despite promises of redress.

"We haven't reckoned as a country with the impact that drug prohibition has especially had on Black Canadians," Owusu-Bempah said. "Unfortunately, too many of them are being left with a criminal record."

The legalization effort came with an amnesty program the government said would erase criminal records for possession, but there are barriers to access.

The process, Owusu-Bempah said, is both complicated -- with as many as six steps involved -- and underpublicized, making it more a privilege for the few than a widely available solution.

As of mid-November, just 341 people had succeeded in erasing their records.

The new system has been criticized for keeping these Indigenous operations in a gray-market legal limbo, despite promises that Indigenous people would be consulted and made part of the new system.

"Legalization happened so quickly that these issues of equity and issues of sovereignty with respect to Indigenous people were not properly addressed," Owusu-Bempah said. "The government's still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to do."

In Ontario, the provincial government is meeting with Indigenous leaders about the shops, said Jenessa Crognali, a spokesperson for Ontario's attorney general.

"The province remains committed to continued engagement with First Nations communities interested in having provincially regulated stores or in developing their own approaches to legal cannabis retail," Crognali wrote in an email.

Additionally, when Trudeau announced his government's plans for legalization, the creation of a major new source of jobs -- or tax revenue -- was not in the program.

But investors envisioned tremendous business opportunities as a "green rush" swept the Toronto Stock Exchange and legal players invested millions of dollars in supersized greenhouses.

Two years later, most marijuana producers are still reporting multimillion-dollar losses.

And these companies' executives are overwhelmingly white, according to an analysis by Owusu-Bempah. It concluded that 2% of the companies' leadership are Indigenous people and 1% are Black Canadians.

"African Canadians and other racialized Canadians that were adversely affected by cannabis prohibition need to be given a chance to benefit from the fruits of legalization," Owusu-Bempah said. "We had this situation where Black and Indigenous people were being overly criminalized. Now they're being left out of what is a multibillion-dollar industry."

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