Racism persists in post-legalization cannabis policies
The killing of George Floyd by an officer in Minnesota set off waves of righteous furor against police-enacted violence. Since May 26, 2020, Black-led organizers have staged large-scale demonstrations across the United States, sparking mainstream conversations about anti-Black racism and abolishing police. There is increasing awareness that not all communities feel protected by police—that, in some cases, police themselves are the problem.
Such issues are not unique to America. Take the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an epileptic Black-Mi’kmaq woman in Toronto. She fell from her 24th floor balcony during a mental health crisis. Six police officers were in the apartment at the time. Korchinski-Paquet’s family heard her cry for help, followed by silence. She died on scene. On Juneteenth, protestors organized a rally and sit-in outside of Toronto Police headquarters; the message “DEFUND THE POLICE” was painted in bold pink lettering spanning nearly the width of the road, adjacent to a list of Black and Indigenous people killed by police within the past couple of months.
Whatever your skin colour, there is a thought that must be burned out of your brain: ‘This stuff doesn’t concern me.’ Apart from being callous, it simply isn’t true. Everyone benefits from, perpetuates, is hurt by, or internalizes anti-Blackness in some way, shape, or form.
The struggle against police oppression ought to resonate within the cannabis community—we are typically one degree of separation or less from an experience with a power-tripping cop. But it’s luck of the draw whether any given encounter resulted in a life-altering criminal record, as opposed to an amusing anecdote to share at parties. To be sure, the deck has always been heavily stacked against marginalized people.
There are sinister connections between racism, policing, and the war on drugs. Let’s examine these dynamics in the cannabis space. Prohibition created crime where there was none, giving rise to nearly a century of overzealous enforcement. Black people were criminalized at disproportionately high rates with stiffer sentences, even though the use of cannabis is roughly equal among racial groups. Legalization has not been a panacea. The federal government rejected a plan to expunge cannabis records, and only a handful of Canadians have been given pardons under the new system. Black people are largely shut out from positions of power in the legal industry. Meanwhile, unlicensed individuals face harsher consequences for the same infractions as licensed companies.
Systemic discrimination goes a long way to explain the troubling patterns that emerge from available data about cannabis enforcement. The disparity is stark, with race and class emerging as the major fault lines. It is the difference between a group of white teenagers in Forest Hill getting scolded by police for smoking a joint in the park, versus a group of Black teenagers at Jane and Finch getting roughed up and arrested for the same infraction. Or the difference between an Indigenous man in Manitoba sentenced to 10 months in jail for possessing 85 grams of weed with intent to sell, compared to white executives at a licensed producer getting slapped on the wrist for installing fake walls to hide $77 million worth of plants from inspectors.
The criminalization of cannabis emanated from racist beliefs and attitudes. Only by confronting this uncomfortable truth can we hope to avoid replicating problematic outcomes in the future. Racism has always been a feature of prohibition, not just a bug.
Anti-Asian sentiment in Vancouver led to non-medical use of opium being outlawed in 1908, with cocaine and morphine added in 1911. Drug prohibition was justified in part by the white supremacist and xenophobic trope that white women were in danger of being corrupted by ‘the other.’ Esteemed white feminist Emily Murphy was a strong advocate for stricter drug legislation. In 1922, she published a best-selling book about the dangers supposedly inherent to drug use. She warned that smoking opium would lead to “the amazing phenomenon of an educated gentlewoman, reared in refined atmosphere, consorting with the lowest classes of yellow and black men.” Murphy also characterized cannabis as a “new menace” to society. She falsely claimed it was a poison that would end in “untimely death” after turning its users into “raving maniacs… liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without… any sense of moral responsibility.” Cannabis was relatively unknown in Canada at the time, making the public susceptible to Murphy’s misinformation and frenzy. The plant was banned without parliamentary debate the following year, in 1923.
The rationale was similar south of the border, where cannabis was made illegal in 1937. Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, infamously lamented: “Most [marijuana smokers] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others… Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger personally waged a propaganda war against cannabis. These racial biases were exploited by subsequent administrations, most notably under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The introduction of drug-related mandatory minimums coincided with an increase in mass incarceration and uptick in police brutality. In absolute terms, there are more Black men in the penal system today than were subjugated at the height of slavery.
None of this is to suggest that Black people have been the only victims in the war on drugs, or that white people have been impervious to brutal enforcement. The path to cannabis legalization in Canada was paved by a series of landmark legal battles involving many white patients who successfully asserted their constitutional rights. White activists have also been extradited for selling seeds. But pound for pound, so to speak, prohibition disproportionately harmed racialized people. Entire communities have lost generations of citizens to incarceration and cyclical poverty because of the collateral consequences of cannabis-related convictions. These penalties include the loss of access to higher education, employment discrimination, restricted travel and volunteer opportunities, the loss of child custody, homelessness, and more.
The system will not indict itself. Quite the opposite, in fact. The system appears to be self-reinforcing. An undercover drug cop turned police chief was appointed head of the federal-provincial task force tasked with devising a plan for cannabis legalization. Instead of reducing police budgets post-legalization, the federal government earmarked $274 million to pay for new training and equipment. Leadership positions within the nascent legal industry are overrun with former anti-weed police chiefs and bureaucrats. Robert ‘Rosie’ Rowbotham, who served 20 years for cannabis, sums up obvious state of unfairness: “The government has turned the pot economy over to the people who lost the drug war: the cops and politicians who were responsible for destroying so many lives by turning pot smokers into criminals.”
A seismic shift is underway, one that’s long overdue. People are fed up. They are tired of double standards. They are marching in the streets to demand change. There is heightened consciousness that not all crime causes harm, nor are all forms of harm criminalized.
This fits into larger discussions about the allocation of police budgets, amid fury and grief over precious lives lost. Floyd and Korchinski-Paquet are not isolated incidents. Far too many Black people die during police encounters. Caleb Tubila Njoko. D’Andre Campbell. Machuar Madut. Nicholas Gibbs. Olando Brown. Michael Eligon. Reyal Jardine-Douglas. Pierre Coriola. Abdirahman Abdi. Andrew Loku. Jermaine Carby. Lester Donaldson. Kenneth Allen. Albert Johnson. The list goes on.
We are at a critical and revolutionary juncture. This is a moment of reckoning. Millions are questioning their implicit beliefs about law and punishment. Those of us who had no illusions to lose should be leading the charge.
A functional and fair legal cannabis market is one where there are equal opportunities, including extra support for people who have previously been harmed by the war on drugs. The millions of dollars collected in cannabis taxation and licensing revenue should be kept out of police hands, and instead reinvested into communities.
We have the capacity to imagine and dream of a better world. One where the notion of policing is obsolete, because the main social determinants of crime—poverty, homelessness, treating drugs as a moral failing rather than public health matter—are addressed at the root. Indeed, we must focus on mounting a resistance that develops and then fights for transformational demands, rather than accepting as permanent and indispensable the oppressive institutions that are currently in place.