April 14, 2023 | Research
Waiting to inhale: U of T researcher and alum explores the link between cannabis laws and racial injustice
By Tina Adamopoulos
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a member of Canada's Black Justice Strategy's steering committee. Photo by Brian Summers.
A new co-authored book by Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (MA 2007, PHd 2014), a U of T alumni and associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, examines how harsh cannabis laws have contributed to racial injustice – and how to repair the communities most affected.
Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice illuminates how the war on drugs has disproportionally impacted Black and Indigenous communities in the United States through the stories of people who are on the front lines of advocacy.
The book, which came out this week, was written with entrepreneur and cannabis industry leader Tahira Rehmatullah. Both authors are scheduled to take part in a launch event at Massey College on April 19.
“The book really provides an overview of how drug law enforcement and the policing of drugs, especially cannabis, has been used to target Black, Indigenous and other racialized populations,” Owusu-Bempah says. “We talk about the huge impact that this has had – not only on these individuals, but their families and their communities.”
In the 1970s, a U.S. government-led campaign – known as “the war on drugs” – was established to stop illegal drug distribution and use. In Canada, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney initiated a national drug strategy in July 1982.
But the criminalization of drug use and its history of systemically targeting racialized communities runs deeper.
In the U.S., The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 made the possession or transfer of cannabis illegal. According to the University of Pennsylvania, a trillion dollars have been spent enforcing drug policy since 1971. By contrast, about a billion dollars have been spent in Canada. Meanwhile, cannabis legalization in Canada and globally is a multibillion-dollar industry.
While discussions and political campaigns about cannabis legalization have largely focused on the positive societal and economic factors, it has in most cases failed to acknowledge the injustices of the war on drugs.
Waiting to Inhale personalizes the need for criminal justice reform in the U.S. through interviews with people who have served unjust cannabis convictions. Some are now dedicated to advancing cannabis amnesty, including Evelyn LeChapelle of Oakland, Calif., who was convicted in 2013 as a young mother. She spent 87 months in prison after a 2013 arrest for a small role in a cannabis distribution operation – despite having no previous criminal record. LaChapelle was released in 2018 and is now a social justice advocate and entrepreneur who offers employment to those with a similar story.
The book also tells the story of Michael Thompson, who in received a prison sentence of 42 to 60 years for selling three pounds of cannabis to a friend – and police informant – in Michigan in 1994. Thompson was incarcerated for 25 years until the recreational use of cannabis became legal in the state in 2018. He was the longest-serving, non-violent offender in Michigan’s history.
“When we look at the harsh penalties associated with the simple possession of cannabis in many U.S. states, they are much more consequential than other more serious crimes like financial fraud or even violent offenses,” Owusu-Bempah says.
Canada and cannabis
While Waiting to Inhale focuses on the decriminalization of cannabis in the U.S, there are many parallels with Canada – a conversation Owusu-Bempah is leading.
Owusu-Bempah is a member of Canada’s Black Justice Strategy’s steering committee. Established to help reform Canada’s criminal justice system, the committee stems from a 2019 commitment from the federal government to address anti-Black racism and the over-representation of Black Canadians in federal prisons.
The criminalization of cannabis in Canada can be traced to the 1920s when a moral panic was cultivated around its use, targeting Black and Indigenous populations. After a change in drug laws during the Mulroney administration, Black Ontarians experienced increased placement in the province’s correctional facilities. According to a 2021 report, one in 15 young Black men in Ontario has experienced jail time, compared to nearly one in 70 young white men.
Before legalization, Canadian youth had amongst the highest rates of cannabis use globally yet marginalized people are still most likely to be arrested for cannabis possession and use, Owusu-Bempah says.
In their book, Owusu-Bempah and Rehmatullah identify key action items to overturn racist policies and rebuild communities affected by cannabis criminalization.
Owusu-Bempah says clearing the records of the convicted remains vital in reconciliation since opens avenues for employment. He adds that redistributing tax revenue generated from legal cannabis sales to reinvest in and revitalize neighbourhoods is also important.
He would also like to see the legal industry create employment opportunities for people with cannabis convictions or other drug offences.
“What we want to see is space within this legal industry for those people who've been targeted by the war on drugs,” Owusu-Bempah says. “The billions of dollars spent on police, courts and corrections were not spent on schools, hospitals, community centres and community health-care centres within those neighbourhoods. We highlight these possibilities [in the book].
"At the most basic level, the criminal records of people who've been convicted of activities that are now no longer illegal should be cleared.”