Liberals must pass a cannabis amnesty law

When the Trudeau government set out to deliver on its core campaign commitment to legalize cannabis, success was defined for many by legislation that did not impede on each province’s autonomy over responsible implementation.

The timeline was ambitious, and history was ultimately made on Oct. 17, 2018 with the passage of The Cannabis Act.

Throughout the process, I’d hoped to see more concrete, proactive plans toward the pardoning of Canadians who held records for simple cannabis possession. At minimum, it was essential to remove the $631 financial barrier that stood in the way of a record suspension.

The painstakingly careful approach taken by the Liberal government to avoid making commitments about amnesty at the beginning of its mandate was disappointing, to say the least.

It isn’t enough to simply adopt language conveying concern for racialized communities who are negatively and disproportionately impacted by prohibition. With 500,000 Canadians holding criminal records for cannabis possession, our government had a responsibility to act.

Following the passage of Bill C-45, the prime minister finally committed to move on expediting the processes and removing financial barriers. But there is room to be more aspirational.

In striving toward a fairer Canada, the federal Liberal government would be wise to act on the expert advice of cannabis amnesty advocates like lawyer Annamaria Enenajor — expunge records proactively rather than putting the onus on individuals to undertake complicated processes to see their records suspended.

There is nothing fair about any Canadian continuing to carry criminal records that impede their ability to find meaningful employment and travel internationally, while many of those who criminalized them are literally cashing in on the new cannabis economy.

In the meantime, the spotlight now sits on provincial and municipal governments as they roll out regulations, distribution models and bylaws governing usage.

As was to be expected, provinces are facing shortages in supply with large disparities between legal and black market prices. Statistics Canada reported recently that an average price per gram for legal recreational pot is $9.70, compared to $6.51 when purchased illegally.

Following the 2018 June election, Ontario’s Ford administration changed course on Ontario’s planned distribution model, introducing provincially regulated private sales. This was a significant shift from the previous direction set by the Wynne administration, which aimed to use the LCBO as a conduit to open 40 Ontario Cannabis Stores and scale up to 150 across the province by 2020.

As of this week, Ontario is one step closer to opening 25 private cannabis retail locationsacross the province, after the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario conducts its lottery selection of eligible businesses to determine who will be permitted to open up shop come April 1.

Locations will be regionally distributed, with five slated for Toronto. Failure to meet designated deadlines to open stores will result in financial penalties.

Each of the 444 municipalities in Ontario were given the power to opt-out of hosting cannabis stores. With decisions due by Jan. 22, municipal leaders are weighing social and economic impacts — some excited by the opportunity to take part of the first wave of stores, with others building barriers and hoping to slow the tide of change.

Local debates have also erupted across the country as public and private institutions grapple with the new legal framework and enact internal policies. Many condo boards and landlords are disappointingly going as far as banning vaping on balconies. Some universities have outright banned smoking and vaping on their entire campuses.

When it comes to the creation and enactment of progressive cannabis policy, political leaders at all levels have their work cut out for them to course correct and ensure true fairness for all Canadians.

While the logistical challenges are now in provincial and municipal hands, the federal government still has work ahead. Bold plans for cannabis amnesty should have been explored and prepared together with legalization from day one.

It’s time we stop penalizing our citizens for simple possession of a now nationally legal substance and get a simplified expungement process underway.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight.

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, January 13, 2019)