Glancing at the faces of executives at the growing number of legal cannabis businesses in Canada or those speaking on industry panels, Carolyn Tinglin is hard-pressed to find many who look like her.
“I’m just not seeing black women or black men involved in this space or being seen as experts,” Tinglin said over the phone from Chilliwack, British Columbia. As president of the National Association of Cannabis Professionals — a non-profit for cannabis health consultants with a predominately black female board — she’s taken on advocating for the inclusion of people of colour in the country’s future recreational cannabis market expected to be worth billions.
It’s just one example of the pressure building across the country urging the federal government to proactively grant pardons for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians convicted of simple marijuana possession — something that will be legal later this year. Currently, those with criminal records may apply to the Parole Board of Canada for a pardon, officially known as a record suspension, five years after the completion of their sentence, at a cost of more than $600.
Tinglin’s group, for its part, hosted a special Cannabis Education Symposium earlier this year in Toronto with lawyers and business experts who provided information and advice for black folks looking to invest and get involved in the industry.
But she says it’s challenging as those charged and convicted with cannabis-related offences have disproportionately been people of colour. A recent VICE News investigation based on police data revealed that Indigenous and black people have been consistently overrepresented in cannabis possession arrests in cities from coast to coast. Many legal cannabis companies won't, or legally can't, hire people with criminal records for certain positions.
“It’s deeply ironic. It is frustrating,” said Tinglin. She knows many jobseekers with possession records who are hesitant to submit applications to companies that require background checks. And the few people she knows who have applied never heard back.
Tinglin said it’s an issue that hits close to home because she has family involved in the “grey” cannabis industry that’s long existed in BC, and they often discuss how folks like them will fit into the legal regime.
A cursory scan of job postings by companies licensed by Health Canada to produce and sell legal cannabis shows that many require a clean record. For example, many postings by Canopy Growth, the world’s largest legal cannabis company, require chosen applicants to "successfully complete background and reference checks.” Same goes for a prospective client care representatives at a call centre for Aurora who would need the “ability to pass a criminal and reference check.”
“For those who have had negative experiences with the laws related to cannabis, people are afraid to come out,” Tinglin explained. “Even though it’s going to be legalized, people are afraid to claim their space.”
In Toronto, lawyers are considering a possible class action lawsuit against the government over the issue of cannabis possession pardons.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have said they would look into pardons for past possession arrests after legalization comes into effect, but Anthony Morgan, a lawyer at Falconers LLP, wants further actions as well.
“The first step is an honest reckoning of the racialized targeting of certain communities,” Morgan told VICE News. “What I’m calling for ultimately is an approach of reparatory justice.”
It’s not enough to just move forward after legalization without simultaneously accounting for the injustices under prohibition, Morgan said.
This could include allowing those with cannabis records expedited access to enter the new trade, possibly similar to initiatives in California that support people of colour who are looking to start their own legal businesses.
“One thing that isn’t talked about enough is the real economic harm that is caused when a person is charged and/or arrested for a crime. They often lose days of work, they can lose their home, they could lose their job entirely. Some people have lost their children,” Morgan continued.
“So there needs to be an inquiry: what have people lost from the enforcement of these particular laws? And how do we account for that.”
Annamaria Enenajor, a criminal defence lawyer at the Toronto-based firm Ruby Shiller & Enenajor, is launching a new initiative next month called the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. She and other community leaders will urge the federal government to immediately pardon all individuals with simple possession records once legalization happens.
She said that waiving or reducing the fee for the current pardon or record suspension process at the Parole Board would not be sufficient. “The point is to have the government adopt a more proactive approach,” she explained. “It’s not only about reducing barriers in terms of access to justice and fairness and equality, it’s about actively pursuing it as part of their policy platform.”
As for a moratorium on possession arrests in the lead-up to legalization, Enenajor points out that’s under the purview of individual police forces, not the federal government.
“It would be very difficult for us to ask them to stop arresting people for something that is actually presently still an offence," she explained. "We can ask them to be more conscious about how, in exercising their arrest power, they are perpetuating a racist outcome."
Enenajor and Morgan’s views are shared by independent federal Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who has recommended the possibility of granting pardons for simple possession during Senate hearings on the government’s recreational cannabis legislation, Bill-C45. She’s hopeful such a provision could be added as an amendment to the law.
“Now as we’re legalizing a substance for which so many people have been criminalized, what happens to those folks?” Bernard said in a phone interview with VICE News. She added that she’s concerned that the majority of people of colour might not have access to capital to be a part of the legal business.
“So the idea of some sort of targeted, affirmative action, or equity planning, or grants that would be available, like starting a small business, those are other ideas that people suggested.”
In an email response to questions from VICE News, Public Safety Minister Scott Bardsley did not say what, if anything, the department has done already on the issue of granting pardons for Canadians convicted of cannabis possession.
“Once Bill C-45 is enacted, we will examine how to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted for minor possession offences,” Bardsley wrote, reiterating that people convicted of simple cannabis possession, up to 30 grams, are eligible to apply for a record suspension through the Parole Board of Canada five years after their sentence is completed.
As for what the department is doing on the issue of the overrepresentation of racialized minorities in cannabis arrests, Bardsley pointed to a number of anti-racism funding initiatives and said: “We recognize that racism still exists across Canada. Our government is committed to fighting racism, discrimination, and the ongoing inequalities that Canadians of African and Indigenous descent face.”
“There can be no tolerance for racism or bias of any kind within police forces in Canada,” he added.