Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Race Equity Lead at the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation. He is the co-author, with Tahira Rehmatullah, of Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” President Joe Biden said last week as he announced bold reforms to U.S. cannabis policy. I couldn’t agree more. Yet despite Mr. Biden’s promises, I don’t foresee much movement at the federal level in the U.S. on the immediate horizon – rather a broader potential for change.
Mr. Biden’s announcement included three main aspects: the pardoning of prior federal offences for simple cannabis possession; encouraging governors to do the same with respect to state offences; and directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney-General to review federal classification of cannabis (currently, as a Schedule 1 substance, cannabis is classified alongside heroin and LSD, and deemed to have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse).
Mr. Biden should be commended for clearing these federal cannabis records, and this is a step in the right direction. Notwithstanding the widespread use of cannabis, people criminalized for its possession face a host of challenges navigating society. They are less likely to complete school, have a harder time securing meaningful employment, may be denied access to public and private housing, and can have their mobility rights severely restricted. But as some observers have rightly pointed out, most people targeted for cannabis possession are charged under state laws. The states will have to do much of the heavy lifting in clearing records, and until governors heed the President’s urging (if they have not already done so pro-actively, as some have), millions of people will fail to find relief. Any potential rescheduling of cannabis is also likely to take a long time.
What can Canadians take from the U.S. announcement? When our cannabis legalization came into force in 2018, our federal government announced it would introduce a program to enable people convicted of simple possession to have their records suspended (a technical term for a pardon). However, unlike Mr. Biden’s move, which put government in charge of clearing existing records, Ottawa put the onus on the people with a record to apply for a suspension themselves. While the typical wait times and fees associated with the cannabis-specific application were waived, a rather confusing and onerous multistep process remains, requiring proof of conviction, local police records, court documents, fingerprints and a military conduct sheet if you have served in Canada’s Armed Forces. As a result, only a tiny fraction of eligible Canadians have had their cannabis records suspended. When I last asked for the numbers in March, only 536 cannabis record suspensions had been granted. The government itself estimated 10,000 people were eligible under its program; some put the total number of Canadians with a cannabis possession record at 250,000. Critics have characterized our pot pardon program as an “abject failure” – a harsh but accurate assessment.
Should our government do more? Absolutely. Automatically clearing records is the better way, and it seems our lawmakers got the message: If Bill C-5 passes – it is currently before the Senate – all drug possession records, not just those relating to cannabis, would be sequestered, or effectively vanished from view. That is a win.
But criminal records aside, Mr. Biden’s move also signals another major development on the world stage: The U.S., long the strongest champion of the global War on Drugs, is finally changing its tune. That’s timely, because this summer – amid greater public and political prominence for the potential of psychedelics as medicine – news broke that the U.S. administration expected the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve psychedelic therapies, namely MDMA and psilocybin, in the next few years. Taken together, these announcements represent a seismic shift. The very big ship that is American drug policy is seemingly charting a new course.
This is something that Canadians should recognize and get behind – or in front of, as Alberta just did, by regulating psychedelics for therapeutic use. Canada demonstrated great leadership with the legalization of cannabis in 2018, and our government is also reconsidering its approach to dealing with psychedelics and other drugs. The U.S. is beginning to understand that drug stigma has hampered both potential medical innovation and people’s lives. It is beginning to understand that a law-enforcement approach is no way to deal with problematic drug use brought on by traumatic experiences, nor the experimentation of young people, nor the freely chosen behaviour of consenting adults. We must all do the same.