Cannabis possession records may be a thing of the past

Cannabis possession records may be a thing of the past
If the new law is embraced, it might help alleviate these past injustices, according to the government.

Got a pot conviction in your background? You might be able to soon get a full pardon and erase that teenage dalliance that has been haunting you ever since.

Currently, about 70,000 to 80,000 Canadians have criminal convictions that may become eligible to be pardoned, after Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced Bill C-93 into parliament recently.

“Applicants would not need to pass a ‘good conduct’ assessment and PBC (Parole Board of Canada) staff will only need to confirm that the convictions were for simple possession, the sentences were completed and all related fines paid, and that there are no other convictions on record. The $631 application fee would also be waived,” wrote Marco Vigliotti at iPolitics.ca.

The proposed law would streamline the process, so those convicted would no longer be unfairly tainted by something that is now deemed legal, said Goodale.

“A pardon removes a person's criminal record from the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. This means that a search of CPIC will not show that the individual has a criminal record or a pardon. This helps them access employment and educational opportunities and to reintegrate into society,” according to press release from the government at Canada.ca.

Before the law, Canadians would have to wait five to 10 years before they could gain a pardon.

But already, some critics are saying the government hasn’t gone far enough.

“That is great. Any day the government says we are going to remove stigma from 80,000 essentially victims of the drug war, that is a great day. But they could be doing a lot more to help this community, especially if they have now admitted that simple possession was a wrong-headed law to begin with,” said Toronto lawyer Jack Lloyd on CBC Radio.

Lloyd — who is also the president of NORML Canada, a lobby group that calls for all penalties for private marijuana use to be eliminated — prefers the expungement option, which acts as is the conviction never existed. But Goodale rejected that because it requires the consent of the minister, which is a labourious process.

Even the Toronto Star editorial board argued that pardons are not the best tool to right past wrongs.

“It bears repeating that by legalizing cannabis the government admitted that nearly a century of prohibition of the drug in this country was at the very least wrong-headed, if not a grave injustice perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of people. So it would seem that expungement, rather than a simple pardon, is required to undo the harms they suffered. Half-measures that will leave the convicted vulnerable to ongoing potential negative consequences are unacceptable.”

A government of a different stripe may feel the need to change the law once passed, according to two lawyers.

“A pardon (technically called a ‘record suspension’) maintains the record of the conviction, but effectively places it in a separate filing cabinet. A pardon can be revoked at a later date in certain circumstances. For example, the Criminal Records Act allows the parole board to revoke a pardon when it thinks someone is ‘no longer of good conduct’ – a vague standard that can be met without someone even having been charged with a subsequent offence,” said Benjamin Kates and Pam Hrick, lawyers at Stockwoods LLP in Toronto, on CBC.ca.

“Most alarmingly, a future government could retract pardons for simple possession en masse by amending the Criminal Records Act or any separate legislation the current government introduces to implement this measure (though the validity of such an amendment would surely be challenged in court).”

The past laws disproportionately targeted minorities in Canada, according to an investigation done last fall by Vice News. The investigation found this even occurred after Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015.

“Indigenous people in Regina were nearly nine times more likely to get arrested for cannabis possession than white people during that time period. Meanwhile, black people in Halifax were more than five times more likely to get arrested for possessing weed than white people,” wrote Rachel Browne.

But if the new law is embraced, it might help alleviate these past injustices, according to the government.

“Ensuring timely access to pardons for individuals previously convicted only of simple possession of cannabis will help make things fairer for these Canadians – including marginalized communities, Indigenous communities, and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods,” tweeted Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair on the day of the announcement.

Pot pardons seem to be a good first step in erasing the stigma that goes along with cannabis possession and it is a good olive branch to targeted communities and other Canadians, who were criminalized for something that most now agree is no big deal.

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