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Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.

New pot laws must include pardons for old convictions: Mochama

April 20 marks a day of celebration for marijuana users. But the federal government's proposed legislation is nothing to cheer if it doesn't undo past mistakes.

The Canadian Press

We cannot have a future pot policy that doesn’t deal with criminalized pasts.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said that the new pot legislation will not include any special amnesty for past convictions.

This is a mistake.

The government’s proposed legislation follows a public health approach of reducing harm and preventing problematic drug use. But the legislation, which is slated to come into effect by July 1, 2018, cannot just serve future drug users — and businesses, for that matter. It should also serve the health and wellbeing of the young, racialized men and women who are currently in court and in prison on drug charges.

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According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, nearly 60,000 Canadians are arrested for possessing 30 g or less of cannabis every year [PDF] — that’s nearly three per cent of all arrests. And at least half a million Canadians have a criminal record for possessing that much pot.

In 2013, nearly half of all drug-related court cases involved cannabis, and young people between 12 and 24 are more likely to be arrested for pot than for any other drug.

The Justice Department either doesn’t publish or does not track drug-offences by the race and ethnicity of the offender. Anecdotally, however, it’s clear that the imagined drug offender is a racialized person.

One only has to hear it from Bill Blair, the Liberal government’s point man on the pot file. In his telling, when youth buy marijuana, they get it from “a gangster behind some apartment building” or “a criminal in a stairwell,” he told the Toronto Star on separate occasions.

In case the dog-whistle isn’t loud enough, Toronto’s former top cop is selling the government’s pot plan with a racially-charged message.

There is ample data to show that black and white people, on a percentage basis, use marijuana at nearly the same rates. Yet black users are arrested at a vastly higher rate. (Much of this data is American. Yet again we find that data on race is patchy at best in Canada.)

Evidence of this racial arrest gap can be found in our prison populations. From 2005 to 2015, the Black inmate population grew by 69 per cent. This increase dovetails with the previous Conservative administration’s tough-on-crime legislation that also led to an increase in the imprisonment of women and Indigenous people.

But if compassionate pardons are not part of the new legislation, thousands of Canadians – especially young racialized men and women – already languishing in the criminal justice system will be left behind. A majority of male prisoners struggle with addiction and substance abuse issues.

For the government, a clean slate starts next Canada Day. Many Canadians need that clean slate now.

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