Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and PhD Graduate Jenna Valleriani on Pardoning Cannabis Related Charges

January 16, 2018 by Kathy Tang

Sociology Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and recent PhD graduate  Jenna Valleriani were recently featured in a blog post on The Leaf, a division of the Winnipeg Free Press dedicated to news on the Cannabis legalization process in Canada. The post discusses the historically harmful implications of marijuana prohibition in Canada for racial minorities, including Black and Indigenous Canadians, and suggests that legal pardons for past criminal charges related to cannabis be implemented within the new legalization policy.

Professor Owusu-Bempah is a professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto with teaching responsibilities at the UTM campus. His research interests include policing; youth marginalization and exclusion; and race, ethnicity and crime. He is particularly interested in how members of the African Diaspora perceive and experience law enforcement.

Jenna Valleriani is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto Sociology Department. Her dissertation was on ‘Staking a Claim’: Legal and Illegal Cannabis Markets in Canada. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.

We have posted an excerpt of the blog post below.

Making amends

Cannabis prohibition has hit black and Indigenous people especially hard, researchers say.
Will the Canadian government do something about it?

By: Solomon Israel | Jan. 13, 2018

Cannabis prohibition has been especially harmful to black and Indigenous people in Canada, but legalization offers a chance for the government to repair some of those harms, says a researcher who hopes the federal government will consider racial justice as it enacts its proposed law.

Federal legalization of marijuana "is definitely a positive step, and one that should have happened about 100 years ago," says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, who studies race and policing as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

Seeking pardons for cannabis crimes

Owusu-Bempah believes the Canadian government should automatically pardon anyone who has a criminal record for the possession of cannabis, as well as pardoning "any subsequent failure to comply charges that stem from an initial cannabis offence."

"Cannabis, people say it's a gateway drug. They're usually referring to a gateway to harder drugs. I argue that cannabis can be a gateway into the criminal justice system," he says.

"Cannabis use is fairly widespread amongst young people, across racial groups," Owusu-Bempah explains. "Certain groups are targeted."

Even if they get probation, those young people of colour are more likely to face failure to comply charges, "which then leads to further criminalization, and a spiralling into the justice system," he says.

Are pardons in the cards?

The federal government's Cannabis Act is "pretty void of any kind of real social justice language," notes Jenna Valleriani, who serves as a strategic advisor to Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and recently completed a PhD studying legal and illegal markets for cannabis.

Valleriani says the federal government definitely knows how cannabis prohibition has disproportionately impacted marginalized people, citing an April 2017 town hall on cannabis legalization with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted by Vice News.

If the federal government does issue post-legalization pardons to Canadians with criminal convictions for cannabis, they might reap the political benefits. In a July 2017 telephone survey of 5,000 Canadians conducted by Oraclepoll Research, 72 per cent of respondents agreed that the federal government should pardon and eliminate criminal records for all previous and current simple cannabis possessions.

For Owusu-Bempah, pardoning those convicted of cannabis-related crimes would be the most straightforward way for the government to start making amends.

Read the full blog post here.