With recreational cannabis scheduled to become legal in Canada in less than 24 hours, the federal Liberal government has signaled it is finally ready to talk about pardons for past convictions.
"Senior government sources tell CBC News that tomorrow morning the federal gov't will announce plans to proceed with pardons for Canadians convicted of simple possession of marijuana," reads a message the news network shared on Twitter this evening (October 16).
The Georgia Straight first put the question of pardons to Justin Trudeau when he was still just a candidate for prime minister. On the campaign trail in Vancouver in August 2015, Trudeau told the Straight that, if elected, a Liberal government that promised to legalize cannabis would also consider issuing pardons for past crimes related to the possession of marijuana.
"That’s something that we’ll be looking into as we move forward,” he said at a press conference that day. “There has been many situations over history when laws come in that overturn previous convictions and there will be a process for that that we will set up in a responsible way."
Over the three years that followed, advocates for cannabis reform and members of the national media repeatedly raised the issue of pardons. But the only answer that anyone received before today was that pardons would be something that the federal government would address down the road. Finally, Ottawa has said it's ready to discuss the issue.
According to an article that the Globe and Mail published earlier in the day, there is unlikely to be any sort of blanket issuing of pardons. Instead, pardons will probably become available via an application process.
"People convicted of pot possession could soon be asked to fill out a simple form to speed up the process of obtaining a criminal pardon as part of the government’s plan to address past cannabis crimes, federal officials say," the Globe's Jordan Press and Kristy Kirkup reported. "At a briefing held just hours before cannabis is legal in Canada, federal officials told reporters Tuesday that internal discussions have focused on an application-based process for speeding up pot pardons, instead of a blanket amnesty."
Last month, the Straight reported that if the Trudeau government does proceed with pardons, those who seek to expunge their record for a past crime related to cannabis should be aware that pardons will very likely come with major limitations.
For that story, Kirk Tousaw, a B.C. lawyer and expert on cannabis law, described the "practical value" of a records suspension—Canada's official term for a pardon—as "really limited".
Tousaw explained that most record checks—by prospective employers, for example—limit their quarries to the RCMP's Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. That's the database from which a records suspension removes mentions of past cannabis offences for which one has received a pardon. So, in such instances, a records suspension would have the desired effect. Whoever ran the background check likely wouldn't see anything about cannabis in one's record.
But, Tousaw continued, if anyone digs deeper, beyond a simple search of the CPIC database, there could still be plenty that a prospective employer or a United States border agent might find.
Records of a conviction might have been removed, but records of charges, court appearances, and interactions with police for which charges were never recommended (an instance where an officer confiscated a joint, for example, and then released its previous owner without taking any further action), could all still show up, depending on the database accessed.
During the past five years, there were more than 103,000 people charged with marijuana possession, according to Statistics Canada. It's a lot of people who might seek records suspensions and subsequently never receive the true pardon they desire.
For the same September 2018 story, Andrew Tanenbaum, director of Pardons Canada, told the Straight it is the Canada-U.S. border where a Canadian records suspension's limitations are most likely to present themselves.
"If they [U.S. authorities] have already stopped you and denied you entry and then you get a pardon, they are not going to care," Tanenbaum noted. "They are going to say you need a U.S. waiver no matter what."