A past conviction for marijuana possession of can severely limit one’s employment opportunities, affect housing eligibility, and seriously complicate international travel.
And so since Justin Trudeau first began talking about legalizing recreational cannabis, on the campaign trail back in the summer of 2015, the biggest question on many people’s minds is not related to how storefronts are going to operate or how much bud one can grow in their home. Rather, it’s about what should happen to people who are stuck with a criminal record for an action that is no longer considered a crime.
Earlier this year, Public Safety Canada said it was working on an answer. Now (August 1), that answer has arrived.
“Starting today, people who have a criminal record only for simple possession of cannabis can apply for a pardon, which will make it easier to work, go to school, travel and actively participate in their communities,” reads a Public Safety Canada media release.
“Individuals convicted only of simple possession of cannabis can now apply to the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) for a pardon through a streamlined, simplified process,” it continues.
“The $631 fee and waiting periods associated with other pardon applications are eliminated. Applicants will be eligible even if they have outstanding fines or surcharges associated with their conviction, as long as they have completed the rest of their sentence.”
The federal government has made a guide to obtaining a pardon available online.
It’s likely to receive quite a bit of traffic. There were 85,965 people charged with cannabis possession between 2014 and 2018, according to Statistics Canada. Hundreds of thousands more were charged in the decades previous.
A October 2018 Georgia Straight cover story shared how some of those people’s lives were affected and how a pardon for their past offence might work.
“People would tell me, ‘The judge didn’t give me a life sentence but I feel like I have one now,’” Samantha McAleese, a PhD student at Carlton University and former social worker said interviewed for that article. “It took the hope out of people’s lives.”
In Canada, a pardon is officially known as a records suspension. They have limitations, everyone interviewed for that story warned the Straight.
Kirk Tousaw, a B.C. lawyer and expert on cannabis law, noted that most record checks—by prospective employers, for example—limit their queries to the RCMP’s Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. That’s the database from which a records suspension removes mentions of past offences for which one has received a pardon. In such instances, a records suspension will have the desired effect. Whoever runs the background check likely won’t see anything on someone who has received a pardon for past crimes.
But, Tousaw continued, if anyone digs deeper, beyond 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 could all still show up, depending on the database accessed.
“In Canada, the actual value of a records suspension is limited,” Tousaw said. “And the Americans are going to do what they are going to do.”
Annamaria Enenajor, director of the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty and a defence lawyer based in Toronto, similarly emphasized the extent to which a complete pardon is more complicated than many understand, and perhaps not even possible.
“The record-keeping process around Canada is a complete mess,” Enenajor explained. “There are records that are kept in courts, in police departments, in government office buildings, on computers, on papers, in boxes, and in filing cabinets. If you say: ‘I want all of my records with respect to this particular offence deleted,’ that is going to be much more difficult for the government because they simply cannot find all of those records.
Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, is quoted in today’s release acknowledging that prohibition laws have often unfairly targeted people of colour and the poor, and stating it is the government’s hope that a streamlined process for pardons will help alleviate some of those past harms.
“Starting today, individuals who were disproportionately impacted by cannabis laws of the past, including visible minorities, Indigenous people, and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods can finally shed the burden and stigma of that criminal record and have the ability to move forward positively in their lives,” he said.