Cannabis, marijuana, pot, or weed. However you choose to refer to it, the popular recreational drug is now legal in Canada. While opinions range from outrage to elation, there are several implications to consider. This week, The Medium sat down with Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant sociology professor at UTM, to discuss the various aspects surrounding cannabis prior to, and following, legalization.
The first issue examined is the effect of marijuana legalization on young people. In Ontario individuals aged 19 or older can now legally buy, use, possess, or grow marijuana. Owusu-Bempah emphasizes that “people under the age of 19 are still not legally allowed to possess cannabis,” and that now there are “strengthened laws [with] more punishment for people who traffic cannabis to young people.” Despite this, there is concern regarding young people who may be likely to sell to other young people.
Youth are also overrepresented in individuals arrested for cannabis possession. Owusu-Bempah explains how “young people have higher rates of use, [are] more likely to be in public, and have a higher rate of contact with police” as compared to adults.
Aside from teens being “more susceptible to police contact,” the data further suggests that “black and Indigenous people [were] more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, even though [it is] know[n] that the groups used the drug in relatively similar rates.” An interesting fact Owusu-Bempah relates is that “even under drug prohibition, Canadian youth had among the highest rates of cannabis use in the entire world.”
As for individuals who were convicted of cannabis possession before legalization, Owusu-Bempah clarifies that “for the most part, people who [were] arrested would not go to prison as [cannabis possession] was not considered that serious of an offence.” Being convicted would have likely resulted in a “non-custodial sentence” which includes probation or community service. The conviction would furthermore appear on the individual’s criminal record and the person would “become known to the police.” Owusu-Bempah says “when [the person was] caught doing something else wrong, the cannabis possession offence would then reflect negatively and drop them further into the justice system.” This is why Owusu-Bempah used to describe cannabis as a “a gateway drug—not a gateway to harder drug use as is often thought of, but a gateway into the criminal justice system.”
Passionate about “providing amnesty for those who have cannabis convictions,” Owusu-Bempah explains how the “lives of the 500,000 Canadians who have a criminal record for cannabis conviction have been damaged.” These people “have a harder time finishing their education, securing meaningful employment, securing housing, and also travelling.” Owusu-Bempah is currently “working to have the government erase [their] criminal records”—as the crime is no longer illegal—and he believes that “we should be making sure that those people are able to get jobs in the legal cannabis industry.” Additionally, he wants “the government [to] put a certain amount of money that they get from cannabis sales taxes back into the communities that were most policed.”
When asked about illegal methods of obtaining marijuana, Owusu-Bempah provides a realistic answer, “for now, a black market is going to remain.”
For individuals who do not have online methods of payment to purchase cannabis online in Ontario, those who “might not want to wait for their product to arrive in the mail,” or those who “might be skeptical of the government,” they may find previous illegal sources as more convenient or appealing. However, Owusu-Bempah is hopeful that “ultimately, as legalization progresses, more and more [illegal dealers] will be put out of business.”