By Neil Armstrong
There are differing views about what lies ahead for Caribbean communities in Canada and in the region in the wake of the legalization of recreational cannabis.
These came to the fore at “Dey Legalize It: Now What?” – a panel discussion on how the legalization of cannabis in Canada has affected Caribbean communities – organized by the Caribbean Studies program at Ryerson University in Toronto on March 7.
The panel included: social activist, actor and filmmaker, Donisha Prendergast; Nazma Muller of Caribbean Collective for Justice; Sheena Rampersad of Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty; and Dwayne Brown, 2018 Urban Hero Award winner. The moderator was Kevin Edmonds, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto.
“Caribbean communities, both in Canada and in the region, were deeply affected by the illegality of cannabis. Now that it is legalized in Canada, what lies ahead for these communities?” asked organizers.
Providing a historical perspective, Brown noted that 500,000 Canadians have been convicted for the possession of recreational cannabis.
Prendergast said the criminalization of cannabis has destabilized individuals who moved here to a new country and further destabilized families because fathers and children were taken out of Caribbean homes. She said no one focuses on the impact that this has had on the women in these homes.
The social activist noted that 60 per cent of Caribbean children are in state care and that there are also concerns of about how criminalization of ganja affects one’s mental health.
She said the demonization of ganja, which is a cultural thing, results in an identity crisis for individuals.
Rampersad said black, brown and indigenous people were disproportionately criminalized for their use of cannabis. She noted that 53 per cent of the women convicted are black, brown and indigenous.
“The industry has taken off and left us in the dust,” she said, underscoring that she is shunned at Caribbean events in Toronto when people find out that she is advocating for cannabis amnesty.
Rampersad said there are many entry-level things happening and it is about “who you know.”
She wants to give access to people who look like her and to encourage them to “join the fight, stand up against injustice and get in the industry.”
Regarding the federal government’s recent announcement of a pardon for those charged with cannabis possession, she said that does not go far enough as it will still affect their ability to get jobs, travel and adopt children.On March 1, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-93 which proposes to allow Canadians who have been previously convicted only of simple cannabis possession to apply for a pardon (also known as a record suspension) with no application fee or wait period, once their sentence has been served.
“Bill C-93 will reduce barriers to reintegration for these individuals by allowing them greater access to job opportunities, educational programs, housing, and even the ability to simply volunteer in their communities,” it said.
However, Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty is calling for the expungement of convictions which is something different from a pardon, she said.
It noted that, “Expungement is an extraordinary measure reserved for cases where the criminalization of the activity in question and the law never should have existed, such as in cases where it violated the Charter. If an application for expungement is approved, records of that conviction are permanently destroyed from federal databases.”
Joining in the panel discussion on Skype, Muller, who is from Trinidad and Tobago but based in Kingston, Jamaica said in her home country people are serving in the underground economy.
She described the cost of ganja in Trinidad as ridiculous noting that weed comes in from Venezuela and someone can be fined $100 US and the cost for marijuana is $10US.
Muller said the Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Trinidadian and Afro-Jamaican are the ones mainly penalized for their use of ganja.
Prendergast said it is madness that local ganja farmers were locked up recently in Jamaica while Canadian companies are benefiting.
She thinks it is “slavery that they want to bring back” noting that by law “the Rastafarian community is not allowed to sell our sacrament.”
“If we’re not going to participate in their legal framework then we can’t participate in it. The Rastafarian community ganja is the safest out there right now,” she said.
Prendergast noted that when Canada legalized recreational cannabis she was asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for a reaction to the move. Her reply was that, “It isn’t relevant to us so why would we be celebrating.”
She noted that the Indigenous community in Canada has been doing their own thing and she encouraged the creation of “new models for our own existence” instead of following colonial sentiments.
Prendergast said Canada has created the model for that to happen in the Caribbean region because Canada has people from around the world.
Muller said Jamaica has the best brand of ganja in the world and Trinidad has the technology and infrastructure so both countries can work together to make this a reality regionally.