04/25/2017 04:34 EDT | Updated 04/25/2017 04:42 EDT

Trudeau's Hypocrisy On Pot Pardons Is Ruining Lives

"That's not an item that's on the agenda at the moment" sounds like an innocuous statement, a typical governmental non-answer. In actuality, this particular use is incredibly cruel and kinda racist.

The item that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was recently referring to as not being "on the agenda" is pot pardons.

But that is not an inconsequential item to be brushed off, at least not for the 56,000 Canadians who have been charged with possession as of last February since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected on a pot legalization platform.

VICE Talks Weed with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined us for a conversation on marijuana legalization. #VICExTrudeauTalkWeed

Posted by VICE Canada on Monday, April 24, 2017

Not to mention the hundreds of thousands charged prior his ascendancy, one of whom Trudeau (who himself has admitted to smoking pot) revealed during an April 24 Vice town hall on the topic was his own late brother, Michel.

About six months before Michel died in an avalanche accident in 1998, he was charged with marijuana possession following a car accident when police found a couple of joints in a Sucrets tin.

Their father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, said "don't worry about it" and hired a high-powered lawyer.

"How am I going to become the next prime minister if I can't get a decent job because of these charges?"
-- Malik Scott

"He was very confident that we were able to make those charges go away," Trudeau revealed. "We were able to do that because we had resources, my dad had a couple connections and we were confident that my little brother wasn't going to be saddled with a criminal record for life."

This came in response to a question by Malik Scott, a person of colour currently facing pot possession charges.

"If convicted, I'm afraid I won't be able to travel to other countries to see my family," he told the prime minister. "In addition to that, how am I going to become the next prime minister if I can't get a decent job because of these charges?"

"If we're going to be legalizing it, which we are, we haven't done it yet," Trudeau said bluntly, dismissing this young man's concerns about his future.

justin trudeau 2017

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 6, 2017. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"At the same time, I have to recognize that unfortunately there's a lot of unfairness to Canadians in the current approach," he added, using the story of his brother to acknowledge that "people from minority communities, marginalized communities, without economic resources are not going to have that kind of option to clear their name through the justice system."

This "abject hypocrisy" was called out the next day during a press conference by NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

"When you're of that background and you're privileged and you've always had everything given to you and you are treated differently, that's what he is used to, isn't it?" he noted. "So he doesn't find it at all abnormal that he can admit to smoking marijuana while he was a member of Parliament, and at the same time say, 'The law is the law and you will be prosecuted if you smoke marijuana.'"

Legalizing pot is the right decision for Canada -- especially given the law's racist origins in the 1920s as a means of punishing Chinese immigrants in B.C.

But it's only half the right decision if there is no accompanying amnesty for those with pending charges or past convictions. Otherwise, these mostly marginalized Canadians will be saddled with a criminal record for life.

When that record is due to nonviolent pot possession, it amounts to cruel and usual punishment.

Trudeau is currently only promising to address this unfairness in the future despite having a perfect opportunity to make it retroactive so that people with pot convictions can travel to see their families, that they can get good jobs, that maybe one day that can even be prime minister.

A criminal record traps people in the country and traps them in poverty. Almost every job does background checks, even volunteer organizations. It deeply impacts lives and when that record is due to nonviolent pot possession, it amounts to cruel and usual punishment.

Owning up to the rich, white privilege that his brother experienced and acknowledging "the fundamental unfairnesses of this current system [and how] it affects different communities in a different way" without actually doing anything to rectify these past injustices is a hypocritical betrayal of Trudeau's whole legalization argument and his stated values.

Trudeau did leave open the vague possibility to take steps at some point in the future -- saying he can't do anything until the law is changed and that "we will start a process where we look at how we're going to make things fairer for those folks."

Given how his actual promise of election reform went, this vagueness is not promising.

If Trudeau says something shouldn't be criminal in a year, then people shouldn't be getting criminal records for it now.

Last summer, the NDP introduced a motion for immediate decriminalization as a "logical first step" to protect young people like Malik from having criminal records.

The C.D Howe Institute released a paper last year with a similar argument, recommending blanket pardons and dropping of all outstanding charges for those without any other criminal code convictions, claiming it "would save considerable government resources without other significant offsetting adverse spillovers."

marijuana bag

(Photo: Juan Monino via Getty Images)

He could even do what the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for in 2013 -- following a 30 per cent surge in possession charges under the Harper government -- to allow police to ticket people for possession instead of laying criminal charges.

"Canada is supposed to be fair for everyone, and that's one of the reasons why we are going to be changing the law," Trudeau also said.

That's the thing. Canada currently isn't fair for everyone -- but it could be.

If Trudeau says something shouldn't be criminal in a year, then people shouldn't be getting criminal records for it now -- especially when most of those people are folks who don't enjoy his family's privileges of being white and wealthy.

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