“Entrepreneurial” is one of the terms used to describe a bunch of Canadian bootleggers who found varying success in the illicit running of alcohol to the U.S. about a century ago.
They are portrayed as swashbuckling adventurers who dared to defy laws that banned alcohol, laws that in retrospect were not only archaic but perhaps misplaced and costly. They are fondly posited as cheeky and rebellious, the forerunners of a liberal era of alcohol-infused pleasures.
It was legal in Canada to produce alcohol — prohibition was lifted by the 1920s — while Americans still faced a ban. That illicit trade was the building blocks on which Canadian distilleries, the suppliers of that booze, made a fortune. The histories of the Bronfman family (who owned Seagram) and the Corbys, among others, are just a Google search away.
During the “roaring twenties,” says the official Bay of Quinte website, many a Canadian lad . . . risked his life during this time for the daring and dangerous life of bootlegging.”
No such indulgent descriptors — or profits — appear to await the forerunners of a Liberal era of cannabis-infused pleasures.
As the banned substance begins to burgeon into a multi-billion-dollar industry, the once-petty crooks, many of them Black, with the grassroots know-how of how to run the business and who could become contributing members of society, are once again being shut out because they have criminal records.
The government has talked about amnesty for past marijuana crimes that would mean erasure of those records. But it is unlikely to take any action until after legalization — and already, others with money have plunked their grubby fingers in this pie to make more money.
This includes, of course, that shameless hypocrite and former chief of multiple police forces Julian Fantino, who helped passed into law Bill C-10 that included mandatory minimum sentences on people for having as few as six plants.
On Friday, The Canadian Press reported that a group of frustrated lawyers in Toronto is considering a class-action lawsuit against the government to push it into granting cannabis amnesty.
They should just do it.
Some advocates are also seeking an apology.
A reckoning of the unfairness with which anything related to marijuana has been treated is a long time coming.
Even the usage of the word marijuana — which comes from Mexico—came into being during the Prohibition Era to warn off Americans by appealing to their xenophobic sensibilities with the suggestion that it could lead to the intermingling of races.
In Canada, too, marijuana has proven handy as a system of racial control. In July last year, the Star published an analysis of 10 years of Toronto police data — including two years when Fantino was police chief — to show that Black people with no history of criminal convictions were three times more likely to be arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana than white people.
The users are Black and white at about equal rates, but the people behind bars are disproportionately Black.
More recently, the American experience shows that even in states where the plant is legalized, while overall numbers of arrests have plummeted, Black people are still arrested at higher rates.
Four times higher in Washington, D.C., 10 times higher in Alaska.
From Richard Nixon’s so-called “war on drugs” to Ronald Reagan’s drug war to Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” laws, the crackdown on drugs has always been an assault on race.
The scholar Michelle Alexander points out in her seminal book The New Jim Crow that Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman recalled that Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
The Reagan administration created an indelible link between drug abuse and Black people, she wrote in HuffPost. It hired staff whose responsibility it was “to publicize inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence.”
Clinton’s policies wrought the highest increase in number of people imprisoned.
But a change was coming. The face of drug users in the public imagination was getting lighter-skinned. Think Breaking Bad. Ozark.
“Changing attitudes and policies became possible in large part because the media was no longer saturated with images of Black and brown drug dealers,” Alexander said at a Drug Policy Reform conference in 2017. “The color of drug users and dealers got whiter in the public imagination, and so we, as a nation, got nicer.”
Nicer in Canada would mean erasing criminal records without a fight, the flawed structure of the RCMP’s national criminal record database notwithstanding. That database can show whether someone has a record for possessing an illegal drug, but not necessarily which one, according to a report in Global News.
“That means that erasing marijuana possession (or trafficking) records could turn into a painstaking, manual process, involving searches in court and police archives across the country.”
No reason why people imprisoned for petty crimes should pay for the carelessness of those trafficking in power.