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.
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.