Cannabis is legal in Canada, and that means that hundreds of thousands of people have a criminal record for something that is no longer a crime. While the Canadian government was hesitant to make official statements on this matter before the new legalization law went into effect, we are now learning details of planned legislation to pardon anyone charged with possession of 30 grams (just over an ounce) or less, as that is the new legal limit for possession. There do not seem to be any plans for wholesale pardoning of other offenses related to cannabis.
Though the official legalization date for Canada was known for months, legislators only had the conceptual underpinnings prepared for a blanket pardoning, with the actual legislation supposedly coming soon. Asked by reporters why they didn’t have something prepared in advance, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale deflected the question by saying that they wanted to wait until legalization actually occurred, but didn’t have a rationalization beyond that. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it would be “irresponsible” to go forward with legislation prior to legalization.
As for what the legislation is likely to say, it is expected to be limited in scope to those who committed an offense that is no longer illegal — those with charges for dealing or possession of more than thirty grams are unlikely to benefit through this move to pardon.
“We’re not talking about dealers or producers or anyone of that sort.” Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Canada’s Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, told ABC News. It’s not easy to estimate just how many people will be affected by the coming legislation, but a 2014 study by the Canadian Nurses Association found that over half a million people have a criminal record for simple possession.
For those that do benefit from the coming legislation, assuming it passes Parliament, the effect would be to remove criminal records from the Canadian Police Information Centre database, without the usual $631 charge which Canada imposes on those applying for a pardon. Under current law, anyone with a low-level marijuana offense can only apply for a pardon after a clean, 5-year streak without crime. This legislation would process the pardons without the waiting period or the fee. The coming pardons are not the same as expungements, which remove the criminal record entirely.
Though administrative in nature, the material effects of this mass pardoning could be quite large. A report from the Canadian Bar Association details the various ways in which a criminal record can alter one’s life. These include restrictions on travel, employment, privacy (some people have to provide a DNA sample for police records) and plenty more. As in the U.S., criminal records can be a huge barrier to employment. These difficulties can follow someone throughout a lifetime.
“It’s fantastic to hear the government is recognizing the harms that have been done by criminalizing people,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, the director of research at Cannabis Amnesty, a non-profit that fights for better outcomes for those with cannabis convictions.
This change will also ease crossing the border to the U.S. (the United States has been known to turn people back at the border for having simple drug possession charges on their record), however, the timing could be important for some people. Once the pardons have been processed, border control agents will no longer find any record of a cannabis possession charge when searching through a traveler’s files. What they may find even after pardons have gone through is a record of a person being turned away previously, if that has, in fact, happened. The actual pardoning process is likely to take months, as legislation has to be introduced, pass Parliament, and then the pardons themselves have to be processed. The Canadian government also has no control over how American border control agents word their questions. For someone with a pardon, “do you have a criminal record?” could yield a different response from “have you ever been arrested?”
All that said, Canada is being much more systematic than most U.S. states that have legalized cannabis. This is in part due to the awkward conflict between state and federal laws in the U.S., but even on actions within a state’s jurisdiction, the response has tended to be after-the-fact, and often with the onus on the convicted person, not the state. California, for instance, which passed legalization by voter referendum in 2016, only took up legislation to expunge records this past summer. Civically-minded groups such as Code for America have taken it on themselves to expedite the expungement process. Seattle nullified all misdemeanor marijuana charges earlier this year, which served to highlight that Washington state, which legalized in 2012, had taken no such action (though legislation to do so was introduced recently).
Canada’s groundbreaking legalization law will mean different things to different people, but for hundreds of thousands of those with cannabis convictions, it will eventually be an injustice undone, with the potential for a new beginning.
TELL US, do you think people should get a criminal record for cannabis possession?