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Canada’s Government Moves To End Mandatory Minimums For Drugs, But Voters Back Full Decriminalization

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Police chiefs, voters and some lawmakers want the government to go much further than just ending some mandatory minimums for drugs.

By Phil Smith, StoptheDrugWar.org

On February 16, Canada’s governing Liberal Party finally moved to enact long-promised reforms to criminal justice by introducing a sweeping new bill that would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But is it enough?

The government’s move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces mounting pressure for reform on two fronts. First, Canada is facing an unprecedented drug overdose crisis, with the province of British Columbia especially hard-hit. Last year, the provincial Coroners Service reported, BC saw a whopping 1,716 drug overdose deaths, up a startling 74 percent over 2019. The province has always been on the cutting edge of drug reform in Canada, and spurred by the crisis, BC formally asked the federal government in early February for an exemption to the country’s drug laws to allow it to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of drugs. That request is still being considered by Ottawa.

But the pressure for drug decriminalization isn’t just coming from British Columbia, it’s coming from inside the criminal justice system. In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for drug decriminalization, recommending the “current enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system.” The following month, the federal prosecution service issued a directive permitting prosecution of drug cases only in the most serious cases.

And public opinion supports decriminalization. An Angus Reid poll released after the government announced the new bill found that seven out of 10 Canadians felt the country’s opioid crisis had worsened in 2020, and 59 percent supported the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

Second, just as last summer’s massive protests in the United States channeled and amplified long-standing demands for racial and social justice here, so they echoed north of the border. Canada has its own not-so-noble history of racism and discrimination, and the number of Black and Indigenous people swept up in the country’s criminal justice system demonstrates that the legacy of the past continues to this day.

Indigenous people make up 5 percent of the Canadian population but accounted for 25 percent of all federal prisoners in 2019. Similarly, Black Canadians accounted for about 3 percent of the population but more than 7 percent of prisoners that year. As the Justice Ministry noted in a 2017 report, after Conservatives passed tough anti-crime measures early this century, Black and Indigenous were disproportionately targeted for mandatory minimum sentencing in the decade ending in 2017. And as the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported, non-white inmates are more likely to sent to maximum security prisons, have forced used against them, and be denied parole.

As the government rolled out the bill, C-22, “An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act,” Justice Minister David Lametti made clear that not just public health but also racial justice was on its mind.

Trudeau had asked him to “address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system,” he told a press conference. “We are turning the page on a failed Conservative criminal justice policy,” he added. “It was an approach that did not make our communities safer. It did not deter criminals. It did not make the justice system more effective or more fair. Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians.”

The bill envisions reforms in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing drug offenders and sets out statements of principle for dealing with drug offenses, including “problematic drug use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue,” state actors should recognize human rights and harm reduction imperatives, and criminal sanctions are stigmatizing and not consistent with public health practice.

Under these principles, when encountering people using or possessing drugs, police would be granted the discretion to “consider whether it would be preferable… to take no further action, or warn the individual, or, with the consent of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual.”

Similarly, the bill mandates the prosecutors open drug possession cases only when a warning, referral, or alternate measures are “not appropriate, and a prosecution in appropriate in the circumstances.” And it gives judges much broader discretion to order probationary sentences instead of confinement.

C-22 looks as if it were designed to cut off inputs to the Canadian prison system at every level of the system. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has represented Toronto’s Beaches-East York riding (district) since 2015 and is a longtime proponent of full drug decriminalization, says that is exactly what it is supposed to do.

He filed private member’s bills this session for decriminalization (C-235) and for an evidence-based diversion model (C-236) to reduce drug arrests and prosecutions. It is that latter bill that the government has now largely adopted as C-22.

“I favor drug decriminalization because the war on drugs is an absolute failure that harms the people we want to help,” he told the Chronicle. “Our opioid crisis has taken more than 16,000 lives since 2016, and there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, including around drug charges.”

“My goal was to call for full decriminalization, with a second bill to show the government if they weren’t inclined to favor decriminalization, here’s an alternative that would get us closer to the goal and would be more politically feasible. This bill seriously restricts the discretion of police and prosecutors to proceed, according to a set of principles that will ensure a stronger focus on human rights and harm reduction,” he said. “It doesn’t go as far as I want it to go, but it is unquestionably a step forward. It will be virtually impossible for the state to move forward with drug possession charges and prosecutions.”

Donald Macpherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of Vancouver’s groundbreaking Four Pillars drug strategy in the 1990s, has a more jaundiced view of both the Liberals and C-22.

“The things that are in this bill are all things the Liberals promised when they were elected in 2015, and if they had done this then it would have been seen as a good move, getting rid of egregious stuff the Harper government had implemented,” he told the Chronicle. “But now, the discussion has moved so far that even police chiefs are calling for decriminalization. It’s too little, too late.”

Even the limited support he gave the bill was filled with caveats.

“Overall, though, it is a good thing, it is incremental progress, getting rid of the mandatory minimums is probably the most powerful aspect in terms of criminal law,” McPherson conceded. “But the bill was supposed to deal with the disproportionate impact of drug law enforcement on people of color, and it won’t do it. There will be more probationary sentences and more alternatives to imprisonment, but arrests and prosecutions will be ‘at the discretion of’ and Black and Indigenous people will now be caught up in kinder, gentler diversion programs.”

Still, passage of C-22 would be a step in the right direction, Macpherson said.

“It is preparing the ground for the next step, full decriminalization, which I think is now inevitable. The harms of criminalization in Canada are now so evident to everyone that the question now is not whether to but how to,” he said. “We saw this with cannabis — at a certain point, the change in the discourse was palpable. We’re now at that point with drug decriminalization.”

Long-time Vancouver drug user activist Ann Livingston, cofounder of the pioneering Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and currently executive project coordinator for the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, had an even more jaundiced view than Macpherson, scoffing at more police discretion and expanded probationary sentences.

“I’m glad to see the mandatory minimums gone, but the Liberals want more police, and we say don’t do us any more favors,” she told the Chronicle. “And the police have always had discretion to not make drug arrests; they just never exercise it. And probation — many of the people in jail are there for probation violations, even administrative ones, like missing appointments.”

For Livingston, the cutting edge is now no longer criminal justice reforms or even decriminalization but creating a safe supply of currently illegal drugs. Limited opioid maintenance programs, including heroin, are available in the city, but they aren’t enough, she said.

“Here in British Columbia, we had 900 COVID deaths last year and 1,700 overdose deaths. What we need is a safe drug supply,” she argued. “We have to have clear demands and what we are demanding is a pure, safe supply of heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. This is a crisis; this is the time to do this drug law stuff right. And to get serious. The feds tell us they place no barriers on heroin prescribing, but then they fight about who is going to pay for it.”

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals think passing C-22 is going to quiet the clamor for more fundamental change in Canadian drug policies, they should probably think again.

This piece was first published by StoptheDrugWar.org.

Chuck Schumer Says Federal Marijuana Legalization Is A Priority In Democrats’ ‘Big, Bold Agenda’

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Business

New House Bills Would Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible For Federal Small-Business Aid

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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced three new bills to make state-legal marijuana businesses eligible for federal small business services, including loans, disaster relief and grant programs.

The package of legislation is aimed at establishing parity for cannabis businesses, which are currently prohibited from receiving federal aid due to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The country’s legal cannabis industry nevertheless now supports nearly 320,000 full-time jobs in the U.S., according to industry estimates.

The measures are largely similar to legislation introduced by the lawmakers in 2019, with some small changes.

One bill, sponsored by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), would allow marijuana businesses to access resources from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021, which had not been assigned a bill number as of Tuesday afternoon, would expand access to services such as microloans, disaster assistance and the agency’s loan guaranty program.

“With more and more states pursuing legalization, including my home state of New York, there are a growing number of legitimate small businesses that are excluded from critical SBA programs,” Velázquez said in a statement, noting that much of the cannabis industry consists of small businesses.

Compared to Velázquez’s 2019 bill, the new version adds clauses meant to expand the availability of services. While the 2019 bill applied to SBA itself, provisions in the new legislation also prevent SBA intermediaries, private lenders and state and local development companies from declining to work with businesses simply because of their marijuana-related work.

Another new section deals with debentures—certain unsecured loan certificates—and clarifies that SBA may not decline to purchase or guarantee a debenture just because of a business’s involvement in cannabis. Nor can other small business investment companies decline to provide assistance to the cannabis sector.

“This legislation will spark growth by extending affordable capital to small firms in the cannabis space,” she continued. “Simultaneously, the bill acknowledges the structural disadvantages facing entrepreneurs of color and seeks to level the playing field.”

Another newly refiled measure, H.R. 2649, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA), would establish a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program to provide funding to state and local governments to help them navigate the licensing process for cannabis businesses. The bill, which also removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, specifies that the grant money should be used to benefit communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

“My bill would act as a poverty-buster and help homegrown small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy and our neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the booming legal cannabis industry does not become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies,” Evans said.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

A third bill, H.R. 2649, from Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), would prohibit SBA partners that provide guidance and training services from denying help to businesses solely because of involvement in cannabis. The changes would affect providers such as SBA’s Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among others.

“Our continued economic recovery depends on the health of American small businesses of all kinds. Especially in this environment, no Maine small business owner should be turned away from crucial SBA programs that could help them create jobs and lift up the economy,” said Rep. Golden. “My bill would help address this problem by providing small business owners directly or indirectly associated with the cannabis industry with access to the services and resources they need to get their small businesses off the ground and grow.”

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have been making headway on other cannabis-related proposals. The House passed a cannabis banking bill on Monday, and broader legislation to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced soon.

The banking legislation would ensure that financial institutions can take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators. The full House passed the bill on a 321–101 vote.

“Even if you are opposed to the legalization of cannabis, you should support this bill,” sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said on the House floor. “The fact is that people in states and localities across the country are voting to approve some level of cannabis use, and we need these cannabis businesses and employees to have access to checking accounts, payroll accounts, lines of credit, credit cards and more.

Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition completely.

Schumer said last week that the long-awaited proposal would be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.” Schumer has so far declined to discuss the bill’s specifics, though he’s stressed that it will prioritize small businesses and people most historically impacted by the drug war.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Schumer worried that passage of the House banking bill could actually undermine broader congressional cannabis reform this year.

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his own legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House in a landmark vote last year but did not advance in GOP-controlled the Senate.

Meanwhile, support for legalization among U.S. voters continues to grow. More than 9 in 10 Americans (91 percent) now support legalizing cannabis for either medical or adult use, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Friday. Sixty percent of respondents said that cannabis should be legal for both medical and adult use. Thirty-one percent said it should be legalized for therapeutic purposes only, while just eight percent said it should continue to be criminalized across the board.

A majority of those in every age, race and political demographic included in the poll said they feel marijuana should be legal in some form, although many Republicans remain wary of adult-use legalization. Seventy-two percent of Democrats favored both medical and adult-use legalization compared to only 47 percent of Republicans.

Among the minority in opposition to federal legalization: President Joe Biden (D). White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the president’s position on the issue “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the reform. on Tuesday, Psaki refused to say whether Biden would sign or veto a cannabis legalization bill if passed by Congress.

The president instead backs modestly rescheduling the plant, decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies.

Read the full text of the new legislation below:

Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Ensuring Access to Counseli… by Marijuana Moment

Homegrown Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

 

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Politics

Biden Won’t Commit To Sign Marijuana Bill If Passed By Congress, Press Secretary Says

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign or veto a bill to federally legalize marijuana if it arrives on his desk, noting that his cannabis policy position is at odds with broader proposals that congressional Democratic leaders are working on.

She was also asked about his stance on marijuana banking reform, the disconnect between public opinion favoring legalization and the president’s opposition and whether Biden plans to revisit clemency applications for those facing federal sentences over cannabis.

The noncommittal response to the legalization question comes on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—a day that has seen a wide range of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), voice support for comprehensive marijuana reform.

Psaki was pressed on the Senate leader’s remarks and asked whether Biden would support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition if Congress approved it.

“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana so that’s his point of view on the issue.”

Biden’s positions to that end are well known, but an outstanding question has been whether his opposition to adult-use legalization is so strong that he would reject a reform proposal such as those currently being drafted in the House and Senate.

Asked directly what action the president would take if a federal legalization bill was sent to his desk, Psaki signaled that he wouldn’t be inclined to sign it, stating “I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill.”

The reporter followed up to ask about a separate cannabis pledge Biden made as a presidential candidate, when he said people incarcerated in federal prisons over non-violent marijuana offenses should be released.

Psaki said that would be addressed if cannabis was rescheduled to Schedule II—a dubious claim given that there are still serious penalties for offenses involving substances in that category as well. She also didn’t provide any insight into whether the president is proactively pushing for the modest scheduling change.

Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked where Biden stands on legislation to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act along bipartisan lines on Monday.

She said it was a “good question,” but she wasn’t sure and told the reporter she would follow up with a response later.

When pushed on Biden’s opposition to the legalization in the face of mounting, majority support among Americans, Psaki said that while he’s in favor of decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, he wants more research on the “positive and negative effects” of adult-use legalization.

“He’ll look at the research once that’s concluded,” she said. “Of course we understand the movement that’s happening toward it. I’m speaking for what his position is and what long, consistently has been his position. He wants to decriminalize, but again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts.”

The press conference ended with a final question about cannabis policy—specifically whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. The reporter cited the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California, as an example.

“Given, as you’ve noted in the briefing, the president’s support for decriminalization, support for expunging exactly these types of offenses, are there any plans to revisit some of those bids for clemency?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. In terms of individual cases, I can’t get ahead of those obviously.”

These question come, of course, on 4/20. But they also come at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.

Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.

Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

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Culture

How Politicians Are Celebrating The Marijuana Holiday 4/20 This Year

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The country has come a long way since the days of politicians dismissing or shying away from marijuana issues. And a good example of that shift is the ever-growing number of lawmakers who are leaning into the cannabis holiday 4/20 with calls for reform.

For example, to kick of Tuesday’s Senate session, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke on the floor about the need to end federal marijuana prohibition, saying that “hopefully the next time this unofficial holiday 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress.”

Then there are the tweets—so many tweets—from state and congressional lawmakers, office seekers and regulators marking the occasion. It’s become a theme each year, and as more states pursue legalization, it seems more elected officials have grown comfortable embracing the holiday in their own ways.

Here’s what politicians are saying about cannabis this 4/20: 

Members of Congress

Congressional candidates

State officials and parties

Local officials

Former federal officials

International lawmakers

Meanwhile, dozens of brands and organizations are also celebrating 4/20 with a variety of promotions, events and calls to action.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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