Canadians convicted of simple cannabis possession will soon be able to apply for a pardon

Published in the Globe & Mail on October 16, 2018

Canadians convicted of possessing under 30 grams of cannabis will soon be able to file a formal application for a pardon, federal officials say.

The government has also decided not to embark on a more complex process of clearing all criminal records proactively, according to the officials. Earlier this year, Ottawa did enact legislation to expunge the records of Canadian men who were criminally convicted when homosexual acts were a crime.

 

The application process will be announced on Wednesday morning after the legal market for cannabis has opened up to adults across the country. However, it will likely take a number of weeks before the amnesty program is officially under way, said the officials who were not authorized to speak publicly before the announcement.

Pardons will not apply to other convictions such as trafficking because those activities remain illegal.

Criminal records for the possession of cannabis affect one’s ability to travel outside of Canada or to clear a background check, with critics stating that they disproportionately affect minority groups. According to activist group Cannabis Amnesty, more than 500,000 Canadians have a criminal record related to infractions that are being removed from the Criminal Code with the legalization of the drug.

Annamaria Enenajor, a Toronto-based lawyer directing the national Cannabis Amnesty campaign, said automatically expunging the records for those convicted of low-level cannabis crimes is a far better policy than putting the onus on individuals to apply for such relief.

“The whole point of amnesty is to prevent all prejudice arising from a conviction going forward and a pardon does not fully accomplish this,” she wrote on Tuesday evening in an e-mailed statement. “If the government is serious about the purpose of amnesty, expungement is the only option.”

The government has faced months of pressure to provide amnesty, but repeatedly said that it wanted to wait until legalization took effect on Oct. 17 to announce its plan.

Heading into a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the legalization of cannabis was designed to create a more strictly regulated system that would provide access to a safer product to adult users, while being closed to young Canadians. The next step, he said, will be offering amnesty to past users who were handed a criminal record for cannabis possession under prohibition.

“We are going to be working on that as soon as the day of legalization comes into force, so we will be talking about that in the coming days and weeks,” he said.

The NDP has already proposed legislation that would allow Canadians with a criminal record for simple possession of cannabis to make an application to the Parole Board of Canada for an expungement order.

The NDP did not campaign on a promise to legalize cannabis in the past election, opting instead to promote the decriminalization of the drug. However, the party is now pushing hard on the government to offer amnesty for past cannabis convictions.

“Too many good people face unnecessary barriers and hardships for simple possession of cannabis, from difficulty finding a job, renting an apartment, to not being allowed to volunteer on a child’s soccer team,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said.

On another issue, the federal government continues to face pressure to improve its ability to deter cannabis users from taking the wheel and to make it easier for police officers to crack down on drug-impaired driving. In a letter to Mr. Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that new testing devices are needed to enforce the law, which was updated in parallel with the legalization of cannabis.

The Conservative Party of Canada is also ramping up its criticism, accusing the federal government of improvising and failing to do enough to protect young Canadians from the dangers of the drug. In the House of Commons, Conservative MP Tony Clement also lamented what he called a lack of capacity in laboratories across the country to conduct blood tests to detect the presence of cannabis in drivers .

“Why are the Liberals rushing through legalization when they haven’t equipped the police to protect Canadians?” he asked during Parliament’s Question Period.

Bill Blair, the minister responsible for the legalization file, responded that according to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, law enforcement across Canada is “ready” for legalization.
Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty is an Open Democracy Project Civic Campaign Accelerator participant. Website by DemocracyKit, created with NationBuilder.