As pot hurtles toward legalization, we are setting up a scenario that carries echoes of the last time we put into law a long overdue advance, and did so in a wholly haphazard and inadequate fashion.
While the discrimination and human rights violations against the LGBTQ+ community are far more egregious than pot laws and still persist in some fairly overt forms to this day; the potential for a disturbing parallel in miscarriage of justice exists between the legalization of same-sex union and legal cannabis in Canada. What parallel? While same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada July 20, 2005, it took until June 2018 for criminal charges related to consensual same-sex acts to be expunged. 13 years.
Why are we not looking to the past to inform ourselves in the present? Why is outright expunging cannabis convictions not considered a bare minimum first step in our legalization legislation given our very recent history of embarrassing responses to basic human rights protection?
This time the delays and conversations in Ottawa have been marketed in a lens of "getting things right". But these conversations have revolved around distribution and supply channels, pricing the black market out, and spending millions on more enforcement. But if justice is not considered, they are missing the mark.
This is - more than any other time - the time to address the legalization question in all of its facets before the bureaucratic dogma of law makes amendments nearly impossible, and historic discrimination fully entrenched.
Criminal records are nearly unshakable shadows. In today's economy they can render a person "unemployable" long after finishing serving their debt to society. While steps continue to be made to understand the landscape for members of our society re-integrating after a prison sentence, the data is currently not clear. As of December 2016, we really have no idea if our system is working - which strongly suggests that it isn't. One thing is clear: coming out of jail only to find yourself unemployable is a sentence in and of itself, and one that puts people on a path to re-offend.
The fact that cannabis activists and users are being denied dispensary licenses for low-level possession charges is a Kafkaesque twist of dark, tragic humour. This is all too real and it's not funny.
To compound the issue, possession may also permanently affect your ability to move across the border with our 'friends' to the South. The border has become a minefield for anyone caught up in cannabis - legal or not. Why would we put so many people at risk of a lifetime ban by placing someone's possession charge on the screens of a border patrol agent? As a nation, are we not tasked with looking out for each other and combating injustice? Are we not moving forward on the understanding cannabis is legal?
Sure, you can apply to be pardoned, but the process is currently slow, inconsistent, and expensive. In short; it favours the people least likely to get caught on a pot charge. So on October 17, 2018, some will celebrate a significant moment and victory in the fight for freedom, while some will have court dates.
Many others will continue to sit in a prison cell awaiting their release date. These people will be disproportionately visible minorities, and the under-educated. What their fate will be is being left to chance at this point, as Mr. Goodale continues to put off giving people currently caught in the system any answers. For the foreseeable future, systemic oppression will be masked by a corporatized veneer as the illusion of progress is trotted out for the eager consumer.
Cannabis legalization is a step in the right direction on many levels. But make no mistake, it is not true progress if a large - disproportionately visible minority and underprivileged - group of people continue to suffer consequences under a law that no longer exists.
Until low level cannabis "criminals" are released from prison and possession charges are expunged from the record, cannabis legalization will only represent a coup for those in our society least in need of a break. Unconditional pardons and reparations, like the ones being enacted in Oakland are a must.
- Denis Flinn