Pot pardons don’t go far enough to address racial injustices, says Liberal MP

Unfortunately, Bill C-93 misses the mark – only full amnesty will address the historical injustices caused by old cannabis laws steeped in racism

Last week, the federal government introduced Bill C-93 to implement a free and expedited pardon process for criminal records related to cannabis possession. 

If passed, Bill C-93, will waive the five-year waiting period now required to apply for a pardon, and the $631 fee associated with the application. 

Unfortunately, Bill C-93 misses the mark. Only full amnesty will address the historical injustices caused by our old cannabis laws.

It’s important to understand that the criminalization of cannabis was steeped in racism. 

For example, Harry Anslinger, America’s first drug czar, warned that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Here in Canada, Emily Murphy, an otherwise celebrated women’s rights activist, led a temperance movement grounded in a belief that “aliens of colour” used drugs to corrupt the white race.

To put it simply, we fear different drugs today because we used to fear different people. As the Le Dain Commission noted in 1970, “There can be no doubt that Canada’s drug laws were for a long time primarily associated in the minds of its legislators and the public with general attitudes and policy towards persons of Asiatic origin.”

As lawmakers scrambled to find new justifications for old policies, the racist application of the criminal law against cannabis continued, with Black and Indigenous men disproportionately represented in cannabis possession arrests across the country.

In addition to the obvious racial injustice, cannabis criminalization has been an assault on common sense – almost half of Canadians report having tried cannabis. 

It is impossible to accept that half of Canadians are criminals. And when you review the actual evidence associated with cannabis use, a substance with fewer potential harms than drinking alcohol or riding a horse, criminal prohibition veers further into absurdity. 

I’m very supportive of the steps the government has taken toward more evidence-based drug policies, including the new framework for cannabis legalization and regulation. We have come a long way in a short time, and hopefully with a continued push to treat drug use as a health issue, we will see further progress in the coming years.

But Bill C-93 doesn’t go far enough. The government should expunge convictions for simple possession from the public record and grant full amnesty to individuals charged.

Bill Blair, the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, has noted that as many as 400,000 Canadians have criminal records for simple possession of cannabis. And that the government expects 70,000 to 80,000 Canadians are eligible for an expedited pardon under the government’s proposed Bill C-93.

According to the Parole Board of Canada, “The purpose of a record suspension/pardon is to remove barriers to reintegration that can be associated with a criminal record.” 

But in some cases, it can be reinstated.

Again, according to the Parole Board, “for expungement, the government recognizes that those whose record of conviction constitutes a historical injustice should not be viewed as ‘former offenders.’ Their conviction was for an act that should never have been a crime….” 

The resolution to legalize and regulate cannabis passed by the Liberal party in 2012 calls for “amnesty” for cannabis possession offences, and “the elimination of all criminal records related thereto.” Today, we see some American jurisdictions making that happen. Our government should follow suit.

Only full amnesty recognizes the disproportionate impact of cannabis prohibition on people of colour and the fact that cannabis should never have been criminalized in the first place.

Our government’s solution is better than nothing, but it’s not enough to be better than nothing when we have an opportunity to make historic injustices right.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is the Liberal MP for Beaches-East York.


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