While Canadian jails remain full of Black, brown and Indigenous people convicted of possession
In 2010, the popular Guelph-based brewer Sleeman began running cheeky ads which called up the company’s bootlegging history. When the United States passed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 (which prohibited the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol), a colossal victory was scored not only for the temperance movement, but also for Canadian brewers, distilleries, and speakeasies all too eager to slake the American thirst.
“Every bottle of Sleeman has a past,” says Sleeman spokesman Mark Whelan, before taking the audience on an historical tour filled with flashlight-wielding bobbies and hatchet-faced prohibitionist mobs. The message from the ads is clear: prohibition was a stupid law, and every sip drawn from a bottle of Sleeman’s is a taste of historical justice. And while we may smirk at the slick ad, it carries an underlying message currently reinforced by the Liberal government: it pays to break the law if you’re rich and white.
While Speaking in an interview on Monday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale made it clear that Canada’s legalization plan will not include amnesty for those convicted of marijuana possession. Neither is there any mercy forthcoming for those currently being tried after an arrest. This comes barely a year after Scarborough MP and former Toronto Police chief Bill Blair called the current system “one of the great injustices in this country” in a speech to the Liberal senate caucus, and denounced “the impact that it has on minority communities, Aboriginal communities, and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods.”
The impact is almost, but not quite, quantified. In 2015, former corrections investigator Howard Sapers released a blistering report on Canada’s federal prisons, showing the growth rate in incarcerations among Indigenous and Black populations to be completely out of balance with demography in the Canadian population (50 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively). “Recent inmate population growth is almost exclusively driven by an increasing number of Aboriginal and visible minority groups behind bars,” said Sapers. At a time when violent crime continues its long, downward trend, jail cells are rapidly filling with Indigenous, brown, and Black inmates. While there is no data to support the growth being fuelled by drug arrests (mainly because we don’t collect it, as pointed out by Evan Solomon), connecting the dots is not difficult.
While Bill Blair was rattling his hairshirt before the Senate caucus about the tragic impact of drug-related imprisonment on minority communities, white men—including his former deputy chief turned weed baron Kim Derry—have been striking it rich. Last year, TVO ran a profile of prominent Canadians sinking their riches into the gentrification of weed, and they include Derry, as well as former prime minister John Turner, former Ontario health minister and Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman, former Ontario premier Ernie Eves, and Liberal bagman Chuck Rifici.
There are, of course, more would-be barons who smell money wafting in with the arrival of legal weed. Loblaw CEO Galen G. Weston (whose company recently acquired Canada’s largest pharmacy chain in Shopper’=s Drug Mart) has pondered aloud more than once that the company’s medically trained pharmacists working under both brands are, of course, the ones best equipped to dispense a drug whose most serious side effects are an empty fridge and a long nap.
And thus, we arrive at the natural endpoint of the weed game. Its marketplace—let’s face it, outside of biker gangs, we’re disproportionately talking about dealers and traffickers from Black, brown, and Indigenous communities—people facing stiff sentences (including mandatory ones under the Harper government), criminal records that affected their ability to find gainful employment, restricted travel, and endless stigmas and stereotypes.
The socially responsible, if not moral next step would be to free those imprisoned under previous legal regimes. It would be to wipe clean the records of people who have already repaid their debt to society, and allow them to breathe easy when filling out job applications. But once government finally understood the counter-productivity (and plain stupidity) of criminalizing marijuana, it could only move itself so far as to allow rich white men to profit. Which makes for a great entry point into a newly-created industry: profit margins tend to be high when the government locks your competition behind bars.
One aspect of prohibition those Sleeman’s ads tend to overlook (as well as most history lessons on the Volstead Act), was that the temperance movement wasn’t merely a crowd of grouchy puritans looking to stamp out fun times. Protestant churches did indeed rail against the moral degradation and household violence wrought by the drink, but many of them were specific about the type of sinful boors whose influence they sought to curb.
The Anti-Saloon League, a multi-denominational passel of Protestant churches, partnered with racist and nativist organizations (including the Ku Klux Klan) to rally behind “dry” candidates who openly railed against the agglomeration of Catholics and Jews in urban centres.
The ASL also ran a print arm called American Issue, which regularly published nativist screeds. Regarding the growing concern that the prohibition movement was a smokescreen, behind which lay bigotry against Jews and Catholics, American Issue responded:
“Really, is not the country growing rather tired of having a lot of swill-fattened blowsy half-foreigners getting together and between hiccoughs laying down definitions to Americans regarding the motive of our constitution and laws.”
It was, of course, no coincidence that speakeasies in Italian, Irish, and Jewish neighbourhoods were often targeted for raids. Meanwhile, bootleggers ran circuits carrying them through the households of the moneyed class and even Congress itself. There was no amnesty for those caught up in the incarceration pipeline of the prohibition era, but this was long before a Google search, or even a background check, could torpedo a person’s ability to make a living.
In the current age of weed gentrification under our government of Sunny Ways, there’s no excuse for this kind of heartlessness. By refusing to table amnesty with weed legalization, Liberals are ensuring that every joint a Canadian smokes has a past. And that story is more than familiar to our communities: white enrichment at the expense of our bodies.