Machine Learning: Using the Technology of the Future to Right the Injustices of the Past

Cannabis legalization is fast approaching in Canada and although the federal government has indicated a willingness to clear the criminal records of people convicted of minor cannabis-related offences, no firm plan to achieve this goal has been put in place.  As such, the fate of the 500,000 or so Canadians with cannabis possession records hangs in the balance.

The Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty has been leading the drive to secure pardons for those affected by cannabis prohibition. We know that the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted Indigenous, racialized and otherwise marginalized Canadians. Many members of these communities have been saddled with a criminal record that impedes their life chances and the life chances of those around them.

Undoubtedly, the task of actually pardoning half a million people could be burdensome. Providing blanket amnesty in the way we envision could take significant government resources. However, it doesn’t have to.

Following the legalization of recreational cannabis in California, San Francisco’s District Attorney, George Gascón, announced a partnership with Code for America to employ a new machine learning algorithm to help them clear relevant cannabis possession records dating back to the 1970s. The new tool, cleverly named My Clear Record, reads through official charging documents, identifies codes for various cannabis-related crimes and then automatically determines which cases are eligible for pardon or downgrade from felony to misdemeanor. The tool then automatically fills out required forms for the District Attorney’s office to file with the court.

On announcing the initiative, DA Gascón had this to say: “When the government uses 20th century tools to tackle 21st century problems, it’s the public that pays the price…California has decriminalized recreational cannabis use, but a marijuana conviction continues to serve as a barrier to employment, housing, student loans and more.  Lack of access to employment and housing are two primary drivers of recidivism, so until we clear these records it’s government that is effectively holding these people back and impeding public safety.  I’m hopeful that this partnership will inspire many prosecutors who have cited resource constraints to join this common sense effort and provide this relief.” We at Cannabis Amnesty are hopeful that the Canadian government will follow suit.


Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty is an Open Democracy Project Civic Campaign Accelerator participant. Website by DemocracyKit, created with NationBuilder.