COMMENTARY: Cannabis legalization without amnesty is meaningless
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participated in a cannabis-centric town hall at Vice Media’s office in Toronto. The prime minister took tough questions from those in the audience and can be lauded for going into a situation where he knew he was going to be asked questions from those who were undoubtedly disappointed in the newly announced regulations to implement a legal recreational market for marijuana.
One of those questions was posed by Malik Scott, a young black man who has been charged with criminal possession of marijuana. Scott expressed his worry about being able to leave the country if he were to be convicted, then very pointedly asked, “How am I going to become the next prime minister if I can’t get a decent job because of these charges?”
Scott’s point is a valid one. Canadians who have a criminal conviction can see their lives effectively ruined by being unable to secure employment.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau avoids answering questions on decriminalization of marijuana
The prime minister responded by recounting the story of how his late younger brother Michel was found to be in possession of marijuana and managed to avoid criminal charges. The gist of the story, which the prime minister has shared before, is that his family’s privilege, both in terms of race and socioeconomic status, played an integral role in ensuring that Michel’s dumb mistake was not going to result in a criminal record.
Trudeau effectively acknowledged his family’s privilege and came by it honestly, which is nice but is also indicative of just how low of a societal bar we have set if recognizing one’s wealth, race and proximity to power can be considered groundbreaking. As Metro’s Vicky Mochama succinctly stated, “Asked how the government’s legalization plan would help someone who was young, black and scared, the prime minister told a story about being white and incredibly privileged.”
READ MORE: As marijuana legalization looms, Trudeau hints at amnesty for possession convictions
The prime minister went on to explicitly state how inherently unequal our justice system can be.
“People from minority communities, marginalized communities, without economic resources are not going to have that kind of option to clear their name through the justice system.”
This isn’t the first time the Liberals have pointed this out.
Explicitly acknowledging what so many critics of the justice system have been saying for years is certainly a welcomed departure from some of the rhetoric we have heard from politicians in the past, but it also highlights a glaring oversight in the government’s approach to regulating cannabis.
Legalization of the recreational market without amnesty for those who have been pursued and convicted under a system that the Liberals themselves recognize as being inherently unfair is myopic governance peppered with hypocrisy.
Prime Minister Trudeau did state that there is a possibility of amnesty in the future, saying, “We will start a process where we look at how we’re going to make things fairer for those folks,” but noted that nothing on this front can be done until the law is changed. Legislative amendments are obviously not instantaneous and no reasonable person with even a cursory understanding of the legislative process would state otherwise, but would a firm commitment to conditional or absolute discharges for those convicted of simple possession charges really be so difficult?
No one piece of legislation is ever going to be able to solve the many failings of a criminal justice system that is inherently skewed towards those who can afford the costs associated with competent legal representation. But that’s not what is being asked of the Liberals. All that is being asked of the government is to approach the legalization regime with ideological consistency.
If former Toronto police chief Bill Blair and Prime Minister Trudeau can both acknowledge the factors that race and socioeconomic status have played in our country’s failed and misguided war on cannabis, then they owe it to the Malik Scotts of Canada to at least attempt to right that wrong.
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