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Biden offers pardons for pot possession, signals deeper reform for U.S. cannabis laws

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is pardoning people convicted under federal law of possessing marijuana — and signalling that he’s willing to revisit whether cannabis should remain a controlled substance in the United States.

In a pre-recorded video released unexpectedly Thursday by the White House, Biden announced three key steps that he is taking “to end this failed approach” to cannabis laws in the U.S.

In addition to the pardons, which could affect more than 6,500 people with federal convictions, Biden said he wants governors to consider a similar move at the state level, where the numbers are vastly higher.

But it’s the third step that could prove the most seismic: an administrative review of why cannabis remains a so-called Schedule 1 substance in the U.S., a classification that includes harder drugs like heroin and LSD.

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“I am asking the secretary of health and human services and the attorney general to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law,” Biden said.

Schedule 1 is an even higher classification than that for fentanyl and methamphetamine, he added — “the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic.”

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”

The news came as a happy shock to industry leaders in Canada, many of whom have been championing cannabis legalization south of the border only to find that the White House seemed to have little appetite for change.

“It’s hugely important that the president himself is putting his administration’s stamp and push on this initiative,” said Omar Khan, senior vice-president of corporate and public affairs for Calgary-based retailer High Tide Inc.

“The fact that the president of the United States is apparently pushing what I would call potentially historic cannabis reform is a huge game-changer.”

Unlike in Canada, where cannabis has been legal since 2018, efforts to retool marijuana laws in the U.S. have long focused primarily on the judicial component of the issue — in particular the long-standing concern that the laws disproportionately affected people of colour.

A 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Association found that more than 6.1 million people were arrested for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2018, and that they were 3.64 times more likely to be Black — a disparity not reflected in cannabis usage rates in the U.S.

In 2018 alone, the report found, law enforcement made more marijuana-related arrests than for all violent crimes combined.

“Too many people, particularly in racialized communities, have been burdened with criminal records for simple cannabis possession, and collectively, we have a responsibility to right those wrongs,” Miguel Martin, CEO of Edmonton-based Aurora Cannabis, said in a statement.

“We believe these pardons are a positive step for social justice, and set the stage for U.S. federal cannabis legalization.”

In Canada, Martin said, Aurora continues to push the federal government to fully expunge cannabis conviction records and supports local work to provide legal resources to those still dealing with the fallout.

Biden’s move marks “the most significant action we have seen to date from any administration regarding federal cannabis reform,” said David Culver, vice-president of global government relations for Smiths Falls, Ont.-based Canopy Growth.

“After four years of full legalization in Canada, the president can take guidance from the Canadian cannabis industry as he looks to begin the process to reschedule cannabis.”

Indeed, said Khan, many in the U.S. industry have already turned to Canada for its expertise in a legal market and for help in convincing American lawmakers to follow suit.

“Both from a policy perspective but also from a business operations perspective, there’s a lot of experience and expertise in Canada that the U.S. can and should be calling upon,” he said.

“To be honest, I think to a certain extent they are.”

Investors cheered the news as well: Tilray Brands Inc. surged almost 33 per cent to $5.37 while Canopy gained 23 per cent to $5.16 in late-day trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Efforts to change federal cannabis law in the U.S. have been ongoing for years, but invariably get bogged down in the machinations and political considerations that are an ever-present fact of life on Capitol Hill.

Khan was part of a delegation of industry leaders and advocates who lobbied Congress last month in support of the SAFE Banking Act, legislation to make financial services more accessible to cannabis operators.

In April, the House of Representatives passed Rep. Jerry Nadler’s Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would effectively delist cannabis as a controlled substance — the main reason companies so often run afoul of federal rules.

The Senate, however, has not taken up Nadler’s bill — perhaps because Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already introduced a similar one of his own: the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.

Industry insiders, however, had been growing concerned about the political landscape, given that Biden — who did promise during the campaign to right the injustices around marijuana convictions — said so little about the issue until Thursday.

The National Cannabis Industry Association, which spearheaded last month’s lobbying effort, cheered the decision as a necessary and long-awaited first step.

“It’s imperative that we finally harmonize state and federal laws so that Main Street cannabis businesses can supplant underground markets and nobody is ever again put behind bars for a non-violent marijuana crime,” CEO Aaron Smith said in a statement.

“Removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act is the only way to achieve those goals.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:WEED, TSX:TLRY)

— With files from Tara Deschamps in Toronto.

 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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Chinese immigration to Canada record high from 2015, as some flee zero-COVID strategy

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China’s zero-COVID lockdowns have been linked to a rare wave of protests across the country in recent weeks, and immigration industry experts say the strict pandemic rules are also fuelling a surge in requests to live in Canada.

Immigration from China has bounced back from pandemic lulls to hit a new peak, according to Canadian government statistics, and immigration consultants report an ongoing surge of inquiries.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Ryan Rosenberg, co-founder and partner at Larlee Rosenberg, said COVID restrictions have been a new motivator for potential Chinese immigrants.

“I think that what we are seeing is that COVID lockdowns really shocked people and it caused people to think that maybe China is not a good fit for themselves and for their families.”

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Rosenberg, who has been in the industry for more than 20 years, said the traditional driving forces for Chinese clients considering Canada were better education for their children, cleaner air and a healthier lifestyle.

Permanent resident admissions from China hit 9,925 in the July-to-September quarter, online statistics by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada show.

That is more than triple the pandemic low of 2,980 in the same quarter of 2020, and is also up 15 per cent from 8,690 recorded in the third quarter of 2019, before the pandemic hit.

Quarterly admissions from China are now higher than at any point since 2015, as far back as the online statistics go. A spokesperson for Immigration Canada was not available to confirm if immigration rates had been higher before 2015.

Politics is also a factor, Rosenberg said, citing the consolidation of power with President Xi Jinping, who was recently confirmed for a precedent-breaking third term.

“(The) latest extension of Xi’s rule in China has also scared certain people, mostly business owners … and they are wanting to look at Canada as an option for themselves and their family,” said Rosenberg.

“There is a strong vibe that we are picking up on people wanting to get out for those reasons more than anything.”

Tiffany, a Richmond, B.C., immigration consultant who only wanted her first name used for fear of reprisals against her family from China, said many of her clients say China’s zero-COVID strategy made them feel “their freedom and liberties have been stripped away.”

“Many could sense the pressure that (Chinese) society is shifting, from once being a bit open and relaxed to being strict, prompting them to think of escaping to other countries,” the consultant said in an interview in Mandarin.

Immigration consultant Ken Tin Lok Wong said his firm has also seen an increase in family reunion applications.

“Because of COVID-19, many decided to come here to visit their family members in Canada,” Wong said in an interview in Mandarin.

“After spending some time here, they realized that although they probably could make more money in their hometowns (in China), being close to family members is more important than anything in life.”

Rosenberg said the subject of immigration has become so sensitive that his clients in China are reluctant to discuss matters over electronic communication, fearing they might be monitored by the Chinese government.

“It’s coming to the point that the concern is getting in the way of people being able to have meaningful conversations about this in China, and that can somehow limit our ability to do really good work for them,” said Rosenberg.

China’s embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.

The desire to leave China during the pandemic, combined with the caution of speaking about it openly, has sparked a coded term in Chinese online discussions: “run xue,” or run philosophy.

The bilingual term refers to studying ways to get out of China, and is widely used on Chinese-language websites and chat rooms.

A recent immigrant who moved from Beijing to Vancouver three years ago said he made his “run” for political reasons. He too asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisals from the Chinese government.

The engineer, who is in his late 30s, said he went on multiple trips to Taiwan after the island opened its doors to Chinese tourists in 2008.

“I remember, I stopped by at Freedom Square, a public plaza in Taipei, and saw some people running around carefree. Some were doing music rehearsals and others were even waving placards to express their political opinions,” he said.

“I didn’t see any police presence at the square and that was the awakening moment for me. I thought to myself: ‘Oh, I actually could live my life this way.’”

He said he was now content with his life in Vancouver, despite feeling lonely during holidays and having to work multiple jobs to make a living.

Rosenberg said young immigrants with lots of work years ahead of them were favoured for their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy in a “meaningful and direct way.”

“So, the bias is towards people who are a bit younger, highly educated, and can speak English or French, and then having experience in Canada, (rather) than experience earned outside of Canada,” said Rosenberg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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Girl Guides of Canada announces two potential new names for Brownies program

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Girl Guides of Canada is asking its members to vote on two new name options for its Brownies program — comets or embers.

Last month the national organization told members it would be changing the name of the program for girls aged seven and eight because the name has caused harm to racialized Girl Guides.

Girl Guides says that some Black Canadians, Indigenous residents and people of colour have chosen to skip this program or delay joining the organization because of the name,  adding a change can ensure more girls feel like they belong in the program.

Members were invited to vote for one of the two new name contenders in an email sent Tuesday.

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The email says the name comets was chosen because they inspire as they travel through space, boldly blazing a trail, and the name embers were selected because they are small and full of potential that can ignite a powerful flame.

Girl Guides says members can vote until December 13 and the new name will be announced in late January.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2022.

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Veterans’ cases raise fresh concerns about expanding assisted dying law

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Revelations that some Canadian veterans have been offered medically assisted deaths while seeking help from the federal government are adding to worries about Ottawa’s plans to expand such procedures to include mental-health injuries and illnesses.

Veterans’ organizations are instead calling on Ottawa to increase access to mental-health services for former service members, which includes addressing the long wait times that many are forced to endure when applying for assistance.

“Mental-health injuries can be terminal only if they’re untreated, unsupported and under-resourced,” said Wounded Warriors executive director Scott Maxwell, whose organization runs mental-health support programs for veterans and first responders.

“That should be where we’re focused: resourcing, funding and investing in timely access to culturally competent, occupationally aware mental-health care.”

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While medical assistance in dying was approved in 2016 for Canadians suffering from physical injuries and illness, the criteria for MAID is set to expand in March to include those living with mental-health conditions.

While that plan has already elicited warnings from psychiatrists across the country, who say Canada is not ready for such a move, Maxwell and others are also sounding the alarm about the potential impact on ill and injured ex-soldiers.

Those concerns have crystallized in recent weeks after reports that several former service members who reached out to Veterans Affairs Canada for assistance over the past three years were counselled on assisted dying.

Those include retired corporal and Canadian Paralympian Christine Gauthier, who told the House of Commons’ veterans affairs committee last week that she was offered an assisted death during her five-year fight for a wheelchair ramp in her home.

The federal government has blamed a single Veterans Affairs employee, saying the case manager was acting alone and that her case has been referred to the RCMP. It also says training and guidance has been provided to the rest of the department’s employees.

The issue has nonetheless sparked fears about what will happen if the criteria for MAID is expanded in March, particularly as many veterans with mental and physical injuries continue to have to wait months — and even years — for federal support.

Those wait times have persisted for years despite frustration, anger and warnings from the veterans’ community as well as the veterans’ ombudsman, Canada’s auditor general and others about the negative impact those wait times are having on former service members.

“My fear is that we are offering a vehicle for people to end their lives when there are treatment options available, but those treatment options are more difficult to access than medically assisted death,” Oliver Thorne of the Veterans Transition Network recently testified before the Commons’ veterans affairs committee.

And despite the government’s assertions that a single Veterans Affairs’ employee was responsible for proposing MAID as an option, Royal Canadian Legion deputy director of veterans’ services Carolyn Hughes said the reports have added to longstanding anger and fears in the community.

“Many veterans have been angered and retraumatized by this situation, seeing it as an extension of the perception of ‘deny, delay, and die’ from VAC to veterans,” she told the same committee.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that the government is looking at striking the right balance between providing access to assisted deaths and protecting vulnerable Canadians, including veterans.

But the Association of Chairs of Psychiatry in Canada, which includes heads of psychiatry departments at all 17 medical schools, is calling for a delay to the proposed MAID expansion, saying patients need better access to care including for addiction services.

The Conservatives have also called for a delay, with democratic reform critic Michael Cooper underscoring the need for more study and preparation.

“Many veterans who turn to Veterans Affairs for services and support are vulnerable,” he said. “Many have physical injuries and mental-health issues arising from their service. What they need is help and support. And it can be devastating to be offered death instead of help.”

NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney said it is essential that the government increase access to services for veterans.

“We should always make sure that there’s resources and services out there,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to feel like this (MAID) is ever the first option for them. “

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2022.

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