2 Years After Legalizing Cannabis, Has Canada Kept Its Promises?

Legal pot has made Canadian justice a little fairer, with “heavily racialized” arrests for possession mostly ending. But vows on amnesty, illicit sales and Indigenous inclusion are works in progress.

OTTAWA — When Robert was 18, he was arrested by Montreal’s police for possession of a small amount of hashish, an event that would upend his young life.

The charge brought him 30 days in jail, and the conviction ended his part-time job as a translator.

“Back then, you smoke a joint, you would get arrested,” said Robert, who asked that only his first name be used because of the continuing stigma of his criminal record. “Then the cops would put you in a car, then pull over and give you a couple of shots in the head. You get slapped around just because of smoking.”

His arrest in 1988 as a teenager marked the start of a long, unhappy history with Canada’s legal system, with his first jail stint opening up a new trade: burglary.

“It was like school,” said Robert, who spent a total of 14 years locked up, roughly divided between convictions on drug offenses and thefts to buy more drugs. “I went there for smoking and then guys are showing me how to open doors.”

The recreational use of cannabis was legalized in Canada two years ago,  and when the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made its legalization pitch to the country, it was stories like Robert’s — a life derailed by a possession charge — that most resonated with many Canadians.

Legalization, the government vowed, would address the inequalities in a criminal justice system where marijuana and hashish penalties and prosecutions — and the lifelong burdens they impose — 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.

Mr. 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, particularly among teenagers.

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

Mr. Trudeau illustrated the system’s bias with a family story. In a 2017 interview with Vice, he said that his brother, Michel, was found carrying a couple marijuana joints by the police in 1998, six months before he was killed in an avalanche.

Their father, Pierre Trudeau, a former prime minister, came to the rescue.

“We were able to make those charges go away,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We were able to do that because we had resources, my dad had a couple connections, and we were confident that my little brother wasn’t going to be saddled with a criminal record for life.”

Legalization, he promised, would ensure that not just the connected and wealthy could avoid a criminal record.

The new law has all but eliminated possession charges. In 2018, the police recorded 26,402 possession cases until legalization went into effect in mid-October. In 2019, that number dropped to 46, according to Statistics Canada. (Possessing over 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 percent of the population of Toronto, they faced 34 percent of marijuana possession charges there between 2013 and 2017.

The police have lost one tool they once used, Professor Owusu-Bempah said, “as a way of bringing certain marginalized populations into the criminal justice system.”

But how much change that’s brought to the system as a whole is open to question. While Canada is only starting to collect crime and police data that includes race, several leaders from minority communities continue to demand action against what they call systemic racism within many police forces. Last June Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that systemic racism is found in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national police force, and other law enforcement agencies.

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,” Professor 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, Professor 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.

While there is no government statistic for the number of Canadians with possession records, a 2014 report by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, a Toronto hospital and research center, put the figure as high as 500,000.

As of mid-November, just 341 people had succeeded in erasing their records. There are no fees, but applicants must frequently spend money to travel to the place of their arrest to retrieve their records, and they must be fingerprinted.

Even if Robert, who has lived in Vancouver the past 25 years, could afford to return to Montreal, he says it wouldn’t be worth it. Removing the possession charges would not alter the theft convictions that followed.

“I’ve got so much against the system,” said Robert, who has stayed out of jail the past decade and works for an overdose-prevention group. “It made everything go out of my reach.”

When marijuana was illegal in Canada, the Green Mile was a popular place to buy it, with about a dozen mismatched shops along a stretch of highway in Ontario offering every kind of cannabis product imaginable.

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