Skip to main content

As a middle-aged woman, you get used to becoming invisible. Bartenders no longer see you, never mind taxi drivers. It’s not surprising to have your partner turn to you with a start and say, “Whoa! I forgot you were there.” It’s tempting to hold up your hand to the sun to see whether it’s become transparent, and then seek solace in a nice glass of Sancerre.

Or possibly a gram of Green Crack, which – despite its sinister name – is just a popular strain of pot. Perhaps it was Green Crack I was smoking along with my other middle-aged lady friends outside a downtown Toronto restaurant not too long ago. I’m not sure; my memory isn’t what it once was, for some reason.

Anyway, there we were, smoking a joint on the street, talking about books or college tuitions or what we were watching on Netflix. The usual conversations we have when we smoke joints, which is fairly often. The bartender inside continued to ignore us, and possibly would have left work that night never noticing we’d gone. More important, the police were ignoring us too. No one stopped, questioned or arrested us. The neighbours didn’t call the cops on this bunch of nicely dressed, middle-aged ladies. This is the experience of toking while white.

Toking while white also allows you to sit on a hillside at a Dolly Parton concert smoking a joint (been there) or to stand with an equally middle-aged stranger outside a literary gala while she hands you her vape and tells you about her son’s wedding (done that). Along the way, I’ve worried more about the piercing scorn of judgy moms than the cold hand of the criminal justice system. In other words, toking while white is entitlement, and like most entitlement, it’s pernicious and unthinking and corrosive.

In the same way I’ve never been arrested at Starbucks while waiting for a friend, I’ve also never been arrested for rolling a Camberwell carrot outside an art gallery (and if I can just lay low for a few more months, I never will). The people who are disproportionately arrested for possession of weed in Canada are not middle-aged white women, you may not be surprised to learn. They are, as a Vice investigation reported this week, much more likely to be black and Indigenous people.

Using freedom of information requests, Vice’s Rachel Browne obtained statistics from police forces in six cities, covering the period 2015-2017. She writes, “Indigenous people in Regina were nearly nine times more likely to get arrested for cannabis possession than white people during that time period. Meanwhile, black people in Halifax were more than five times more likely to get arrested for possessing weed than white people.” The story notes that “the exclusive data provides further evidence that racial disparities in cannabis possession arrests are an issue in Canada, just like in the U.S.”

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

This echoes a 2017 Toronto Star investigation, which found that “black people with no history of criminal convictions have been three times more likely to be arrested by Toronto police for possession of small amounts of marijuana than white people with similar backgrounds.” Black people caught with a small amount of marijuana were detained for a bail hearing at a much higher rate than whites as well. The data in the Star investigation covered a 10-year period between 2003-2013.

For many people, the countdown to licit weed began decades ago (I wrote my first column calling for decriminalization in 1994, which is a lot of Camberwell carrots under the bridge. Or in the ashtray, if you prefer.) And yet there are so many issues of justice and equality that have not yet been addressed.

Yes, there have been careful discussions, as there should be, about the placement of marijuana stores near schools and the proper age for purchase. But the more fraught issues of who wins and who loses in this new green rush have not yet been properly understood, and if no efforts are made now, existing inequalities are likely to be further calcified.

How about amnesty for those who have been jailed for possession, for example? As my colleague André Picard pointed out, in arguing for those records to be wiped clean, “for decades now, tens of thousands of people a year have been busted for possession. Racialized and low-income Canadians have been disproportionately prosecuted and harmed.” A criminal record is a lifelong sentence. Yet, while the government has indicated it’s open to some kind of amnesty, the details and timing have not been revealed.

Who will benefit from this coming windfall? Is it the people who once banged the anti-pot drum? Vice compiled a handy list of “Canada’s biggest weed hypocrites,” which included former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino and former Conservative cabinet minister Joe Oliver, who are both now working with medical marijuana companies.

What about poor or precariously employed people, who can’t afford their medical marijuana? The current issue of This Magazine has a cover story looking at people who are suffering as the price of their medical marijuana rises, a problem that will be exacerbated as the government plans to slap a tax on it. In the story, two people talk about how they have to spend between $900 and $1,000 a month to keep their suffering at bay – costs that are not covered by private or public insurance.

It’s rare in this country that we witness the dawn of an initiative that will bring a lot of money to some people and a lot of pleasure to others. I like to think of it in the words of the musical Finian’s Rainbow: “It’s the great come and get it day.” The very least we could do is try to make sure the project is as fair and just as possible from the outset, and not stamped with already existing inequalities. And yes: I’d say that even if I hadn’t been smoking something.