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Why Cannabis Amnesty Matters

Cannabis legislation is like concrete, slowly being poured and malleable until a certain point. As tempting as it may be to press your hands into your mark, the permanence causes hesitancy. As the cement settles, modifications become obsolete – there’s no opportunity for true change without restarting the process. You hope it is stable enough to hold its own with the foundation laid. But will the area where concrete was laid ever be the same? Will the traces of its predecessor remain, hidden out of sight? Timing is everything when building a proper foundation – you have to lay solid ground before walking on it. This analogy was introduced to the TOQi fellows on their first day on the job by Sameena Ibrahim, Executive Director of Cannabis Amnesty. She expressed the long-lasting effect and permanency of cannabis charges Canadian residents have faced since legalization. 

The TOQi Fellowship for Cannabis Amnesty is the result of the non-profit Cannabis Amnesty working alongside Aurora Cannabis and TOQi Technologies to systematically right the wrongs of prohibition laws. Sameena, Annamaria Enenajor, Stephanie DiGiuseppe, Drew Henson, and Aurora have teamed up to mentor two hand-selected candidates in a Fellowship Program co-sponsored by TOQi & Aurora. The Cannabis Amnesty Board Members and Drew will work closely with the Fellows Aisha and Sofia over the next 12 weeks in the not-for-profit sector of the cannabis industry. Aisha and Sofia will have opportunities to build skills in various areas including but not limited to: government operations, marketing asset creation, and communication strategies. The Fellowship is an opportunity for the corporate side of the cannabis industry to give back to the foundations it was built on: community. 

It has been eight years since Canada’s recreational legalization. However, decriminalization and minor cannabis-related convictions have not seen as much progress. A conviction for simple possession of cannabis dried flower equivalent can result in a criminal record, resulting in substantial and lifetime consequences for the individual charged. For many people, their lives will continue to be halted due to minor infractions. Those with a criminal record are hindered from traveling, and previous convictions hinder people from traveling, employment, or volunteer work.

The Canadian Bar Association’s Alberta Branch made a Case for Cannabis Amnesty, reviewing the current census data on cannabis offense charges. The CBA stated, “legalization sends a positive message to Canadians and the rest of the world that it’s time to move away from the ineffective and harmful war on drugs and adopt a pragmatic approach to the regulation of illicit substances that focuses on harm reduction rather than relying on antiquated stereotypes about cannabis consumers.”

TOQi, Cannabis Amnesty & Aurora team out for the welcome dinner

from right to left: Drew Henson, CEO/Founder – TOQi Technologies Ltd, Annamaria Enenajor, Founder/Executive Director – Cannabis Amnesty, Sofia Rodriguez Garzon – TOQi Fellow for Cannabis Amnesty, Aisha Abawajy – TOQi Fellow for Cannabis Amnesty, Stephanie DiGiuseppe, Director/Founding Member – Cannabis Amnesty, Kate Hillyar, Senior Manager Corporate Communications, Aurora Cannabis

According to Statistics Canada, in the last 15 years, Canadian police agencies reported over 800,000 cannabis possession “incidences” and experts estimate that approximately 500,000 Canadians living with criminal records for cannabis-related offenses. Furthermore, cannabis convictions have disproportionately affected marginalized, Black, and Indigenous people due to decades of discriminatory and unequal enforcement of cannabis legislation. Although all Canadians use cannabis at similar rates, Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately arrested for simple cannabis possession. The following statistics show the extent of discrimination against indigenous and black Canadians in 2015 provided by the CBA:

  • In Vancouver, Indigenous people were nearly seven times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession.
  • In Calgary, Indigenous and Black people are roughly three times more likely to be arrested than white people.
  • In Regina, Indigenous and Black people were arrested seven and five times more often than White people.
  • In Ottawa, Indigenous and Black people were four and five times more likely to be arrested than White, respectively.
  • In Halifax, Black people were over four times more likely to be arrested than white people.

Since legalization, there has been a significant decline in cannabis-related drug offense charges. However, in 2017, there were 48,000 cannabis charges reported to the police, 80% of which were possession offenses. An expedited pardon program was created through Bill C-93 in 2019 for simple possession of cannabis offenses. Despite the government’s estimate that upwards of 10,000 people would qualify for an expedited pardon, to date, just over 500 such pardons have been granted. In addition to this, Nanos Research and the Global mail conducted a study in 2017 reporting that 62% of Canadians “support or somewhat support pardons for people with criminal records for marijuana possession.” These are a few of the reasons behind the creation of the TOQi Fellowship – to increase capacities to generate new advocacy programs to support people who have been impacted by decades of cannabis prohibition and its prejudices. 

Drew Henson, TOQi CEO's Quote on the TOQi Fellowship for Cannabis Amnesty

The Fellowship

The TOQi Fellowship for Cannabis Amnesty consists of a 12-week program to educate and evolve the internships chosen to be mentored by pioneers in the decriminalization sector. The Fellowship offers interns a generous compensation package (above living wages in Toronto) designed to challenge the market’s chronic under-valuation of the work of people who come from marginalized groups. Interns will also receive a $500 scholarship toward an educational program. The TOQi Fellowship offers generous compensation packages for interns from marginalized groups and provides access to Cannabis Amnesty’s broad network of cannabis entrepreneurs and industry partners. In addition, the Fellows will assist the leadership team with creating content for the Cannabis Amnesty website and drafting marketing communications.

The Fellows

Aisha Abawajy- TOQi Fellow for Cannabis Amnesty

She/Her

Aisha, 2nd year Law Student & TOQi Fellow

Aisha from Halifax, Nova Scotia, recently relocated to Toronto during the COVID pandemic for law school. One year into her degree at the Lincoln Alexander’s Law School at Toronto University, she stumbled upon the TOQi Cannabis Amnesty Internship submission page on her school’s website. She described her initial interest in applying as found within the first paragraph of the information page, stating, “it checked all the boxes.” Aisha recalled her ties to political and social activism and eventually dedicated her career and life to establishing change as early as age 10. It began observing Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s run for presidential office. Further intrigue continued to spark when Aisha started to look at Canada’s political climate. As a young child, Aisha asked ‘how is it fair’ concerning election structures, legislation implementation, and diverse representation.

“It came down to the work they do. It’s essential – supporting people who have had past convictions or have been charged with cannabis crimes. It really shouldn’t be an issue today. The fact these organizations are coming together to focus on systemic injustices and trying to create and build an approach to recognize marginalized communities having or that have had higher cannabis-related convictions was something I gravitated towards. The position also pays a living wage, and no one does that… The opportunities for mentorship that were discussed to build on skills are huge. I don’t usually have access to these networks as a marginalized person. I get to be paid reasonably, learn and have the support to grow.”

When asked, ‘what are you looking forward to the most in the Fellowship?’ Aisha responded, saying “We’re working one on one with lawyers and industry leaders on an independently driven project. We get to focus on one of the many pillars of cannabis amnesty, working to end stigmas. It’s really cool to be able to be on this project and have it supervised by very incredible teachers, who put my passions first. I want to be able to celebrate my job; I think that can happen here.”

The reason why I came into law is to give opportunities, support, and resources to marginalized communities like my own. But, unfortunately, many people don’t have access to these spaces, resources, finances, and opportunities, or even just access to even understanding how to navigate the legal system to benefit and enrich their lives.”

Aisha hopes that in 10 years, she will represent diversity on the bench in Canada. 

Sofia Rodgriguez Garzon - TOQi Fellow for Cannabis Amnesty

They/Them

Sofia, Communications BA Graduate & TOQi Fellow

A week after turning 18, Sofia immigrated from Colombia to Canada on a journey to explore the community niches they were so driven to find. Though they split time between the Bogotá countryside and the small town Firavitoba in the eastern countryside throughout their youth, Toronto became a permanent home. After relocating to the Greater Toronto Area, Sofia found the larger sense of community they were searching for within the 2slgbtqqia+ community. The deep love, commitment, and involvement in the 2slgbtqqia+ community led to Sofia’s application to the TOQi Cannabis Amnesty Fellowship. Sofia describes their application process for the internship as ‘a funny story.’ It began with friends seeing posts about the opportunity and forwarded it on messaging ‘we think you’d be interested in this.’ After reading the information page, Sofia found the program’s core aligned with personal values on a higher level than could be expected. When asked about what drove them to apply, 

Sofia continued by stating, “Most of the time people seem to talk to talk but not walk the walk and after three days of working alongside the mentors, I know their intentions are authentic and you can tell that it’s all people who really, really care about people. As an openly queer and trans person, I know what it’s like to rely on the community. So the fact that there are so many people rallying around with palpable support is encouraging. I think it is an important cause and initiative because I have ties to people and their families who have been affected by cannabis possession convictions.”

The most exciting aspect of the Fellowship for Sofia is the insight and entryway into the cannabis industry and knowledge from its leaders. For example, Sofia shared that “in the first three days [of the internship], I have learned that restrictions around cannabis have actually increased instead of decreased. Before this internship, I had very little awareness of the cannabis industry or its legislation in Canada. And now I’ve gotten so much more information. I think there are a lot of [legal parameters] people getting can get caught up in now with cannabis. So it’s important to educate people and help whenever and whoever we can.”

For individuals interested in the cannabis industry, but unsure about where to begin, opportunities such as the TOQi Cannabis Amnesty Fellowship open the door of possibilities to the new generation of cannabis workers. When being interviewed, Sofia shared their thoughts on the program stating “possession charges are only the tip of the iceberg. Cannabis Amnesty wants to expunge any and all cannabis-related convictions, whether that’s for simple possession or possession with the intent of traffic. There’s an underlying racial bias that has been applied throughout, and in charging decisions and it’s so important to address the wrongs that have been committed in the past and that continue to be committed – bottom line, it’s not illegal anymore. If people knew more about not just production, sales, or consumption, but also the legal aspects behind cannabis, people would probably care a lot more. It excites me to be a part of the collaboration and get to work not only with my other Fellow but with Cannabis Amnesty, TOQi, and Aurora too.

When discussing the future possibilities that may result from this experience, Sofia expressed the intrigue of entrepreneurship in the form of a non-profit. 

“I’ve realized that my one true calling if you want to put it a certain type of way, is to work with and for communities. Especially as an immigrant who had no ties in Canada before moving here, and finding a second family, the community is something that I want to always be able to engage with. I want to build networks of people that can help each other out and just work towards a common goal. I always want to be able to exercise my creative power. If the future holds anything that I can do to apply my creative vision towards and hopefully to the betterment of my community I’ll be happy.”

The Impact

The following statistics from the Public Safety sector of the Government of Canada were shared with Fellows Aisha and Sofia and were asked to share their thoughts. Here are their responses:

Issue: While the Government previously estimated that 10,000 Canadians could be eligible for a record suspension for simple possession of cannabis. As of August 7, 2020, 467 applications have been received by the Parole Board of Canada (PBC), and 265 record suspensions have been ordered.

Recently, the PBC has returned to regular operations for the record suspension program. Less than 3% of record suspension applications that are pending processing are cannabis-related. The number of cannabis record suspension applications has declined since the beginning of the pandemic.

Response (Aisha):

“It demonstrates the government’s intent around their actions. The government can and should be doing better. There are a lot of barriers to accessing amnesty. There are fees involved, like paying to get your fingerprints – those sentenced have to do the groundwork to collect their own records in different counties or police jurisdictions. That’s why you want a good affordable lawyer who knows the process to help you navigate it. I think the government could just easily delete these charges without putting the onus on the individual to go after them. Not many people know that the suspension itself isn’t like a full amnesty so for many of them I understand asking the question ‘what’s the point?'”

Response (Sofia):

“Considering the statistics, the number of people who have actually received pardons is minimal. I find it disingenuous and irresponsible that the government is so swift and efficient at policing while pardoning feels like such an uphill battle and such a struggle. Now that cannabis is legal, the individuals who were charged and convicted – disproportionately racialized individuals – are still affected. This has and continues to have a huge impact on them and their friends, families, and communities. At its core, the system and its foundation are broken and need to be fixed.”

Written by: Aly K. Benson

AKB is a biracial indigenous media personality, digital strategist, writer & activist in the Canadian cannabis industry based out of Abbotsford, BC.

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