Dispensary owner says she and others should be pardoned once pot is legal

Politicians, lawyers and sociologists are joining the call to pardon people with pot possession charges once weed is legalized in July. Some say that should include dispensary workers too.

In 2016, 55,000 people in Canada faced pot-related charges. The rates are even higher in Hamilton

"You know when you’re doing something like that that there’s going to be an end at some point," says Britney Guerra of Stoney Creek, who recently pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking. But it's a harder pill to swallow, she says, when she sees politicians and the government getting rich off pot. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

At CannaGems in Hamilton's International Village, marijuana-inspired jewelry dangles delicately from the displays.

There are blown glass ornaments that looks like octopus tentacles. There's an assortment of leather strap beads. There are earrings in the shape of turtles.

This is the only marijuana-related business Britney Guerra can legally operate anymore — at least for the foreseeable future. She's on probation for charges relating to operating Hamilton's now-closed Cannabis Culture dispensary.

In July, marijuana will be legal in Canada, and the Ontario government will sell pot through the LCBO. Meanwhile, Guerra and thousands of others will still have criminal records.

Until she and others are pardoned for pot crimes, she said, that's hypocritical.

"With a criminal record, there are varying degrees of stigma but there’s always a stigma," says Jack Lloyd, whose interest in marijuana inspired him to become a lawyer. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"There are people who have had marijuana charges for 20 years who are still going to be walking around with marijuana charges."

Guerra, 30, has a personal stake in this. In December, she pleaded guilty to one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking, and one count of possessing profits from the proceeds of crime over $5,000. She was fined $13,000 and received 18 months of probation. The conditions include not operating a dispensary.

But she's not the only one making the argument. Sarnia's mayor, for example, has called on the Trudeau government to clear the criminal records of people charged with pot possession.

Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor, extends that to dispensary workers. The current system criminalizes small business owners, he said, while government insiders are getting rich.

Corporations, politicians and bureaucrats are investing in pot, he said. That includes Hamilton's mayor, former MP Gary Goodyear and former MP and Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, who once compared weed to murder.

Britney Guerra serves customers at Cannabis Culture in early 2017. The dispensary was raided and shut down in March. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Marijuana, Green said, is "about to be bigger than the tech boom." Political involvement in its distribution, he said last year, is "as close to insider trading as we're ever going to see."

"I will not support the further criminalization of small business owners," he said, and "often times, lower-income folks who are trying to access this process that are shut down and sent to jail."

Not everyone agrees. Last year, Hamilton city council urged police to crack down harder on the city's 19 marijuana dispensaries. Dispensaries, said Coun. Doug Conley of Ward 9, "have a negative impact on the neighbourhood (they are) operating in, as well as the entire Hamilton community."

Police have responded accordingly. Last week, officers raided the SOS Dispensary on King Street East. They'll keep doing that, they say, until laws change.

"The Hamilton Police Service will continue to investigate all allegations of criminal activity, including the sale and trafficking of marijuana from dispensaries," the service said last week.

As for Guerra, her arrest happened as part of a wider bust that included Marc and Jodie Emery, famed marijuana activists and founders of the Cannabis Culture brand.

Guerra knew the raid would happen some day. "You know when you're doing something like that that there's going to be an end point," she said.

And court documents in the Emery case show the dispensary business is lucrative enough to be worth the risk. In January 2017 alone, police found, the downtown Toronto Cannabis Culture sent between $20,000 and $45,000 in weekly royalties alone to company headquarters.

Julian Fantino, a former Toronto police chief and MP who once compared marijuana to murder, has opened a medical marijuana business. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

But Jack Lloyd, a Toronto lawyer and long-time pot advocate, says pardons are only fair. He wants Ottawa to pardon — and apologize to — everyone with a marijuana-related criminal record. That includes dispensary owners.

Having a criminal record, he said, impedes someone's ability to travel and find work.

"With a criminal record, there are varying degrees of stigma," said Lloyd, who works for the same firm that represented Guerra. "But there's always a stigma."

Thousands of Canadians are affected by marijuana-related charges, he said. In 2016, 58 per cent of drug-related offences (55,000 of 95,400 people) were related to cannabis, and 76 per cent of those were for possessing it. 

In Hamilton, the per-capita numbers are higher than many areas of the country. In 2015, Hamilton ranked eight of 34 cities for pot possession charges. Pot possession charges here increased 134 per cent from 2006 to 2015, although the court dropped many of those charges.

Marc Emery, the self-described "Prince of Pot," speaks to reporters outside the B.C. Supreme Court in 2010 as his wife Jodie looks on. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto sociologist, says there's a larger reason to consider pot possession pardons.

The war on drugs, he said, has unfairly targeted impoverished and racialized communities. "The laws have not been enforced equally across social groups."

As for whether pardons should include dispensary owners, "that's a good question," he said.

"If we look at it from an economic and a harm standpoint, (marijuana) is going to be legal shortly," he said. "In six months, it will not be against the law. Should we be wasting time and resources on it? In that sense, the answer is no."

Ralph Goodale, federal public safety minister, says until legislation changes, possessing and trafficking marijuana is still against the law. But he acknowledges the need for change.

The province says dispensary owners will face fines of up to $1 million after marijuana is legalized this summer. (Rebecca Silverstone/CBC)

"As the legislative framework for legalizing cannabis moves forward, the government intends to consider options about what can be done to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted for minor possession offences," he told CBC News.

As for Guerra, there's no legal dispensary ownership in her future. The province says any dispensaries still operating in July will be fined as much as $1 million.

It's unfortunate, Guerra said. Many of the people working at and running dispensaries were involved in the fight to legalize marijuana in the first place.

"Our biggest task is complete," she said. "But we still have to work to make sure the people already in this industry are actually included."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

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