OTTAWA — They are banned from crossing into the United States and the question — “do you have a criminal record” — can hurt their chances with employers. These can be the lifelong consequences for at least half a million Canadians convicted of pot possession. But as Liberal MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair said at a recent conference on the legalization of marijuana, that’s “out of proportion with the offence that we were trying to control.”
Once current legislation is repealed and replaced a pot amnesty may be on the table.
This week’s Senate committee reports on Bill C-45, however, are calling for a number of changes to the proposed Cannabis Act — including a call on Tuesday to postpone legalization for up to a year so broader consultations may be undertaken with Indigenous communities. When asked, Justin Trudeau wouldn’t say whether the Liberals would entertain such a delay. “We’ll continue to consult a broad range of Canadians,” the Prime Minister said as he entered a meeting of his caucus.
But as uncertainty around the timing of legalized pot persists, some activists say there is no reason to wait to expunge simple possession records. In fact, they argue those convictions were as immoral as laws that that once demonized homosexuals and treated them as less than equal.
Bill C-45 is mute on the issue of pot possession convictions. But as Blair said in Montreal last week at a conference at McGill University, “I have to tell you from experience I know a tonne of people — and I’m sure many of you people have had this experience in this room — as a result of a youthful indiscretion or some choices they made when they were younger, they have this criminal record.”
“They lead otherwise exemplary lives. They are fine, upstanding, honest, decent citizens. And yet that criminal record has an impact on the quality of their life and on their opportunities.”
In January, Trudeau said he will “reflect on the fairness” of prior pot convictions. His comments followed an interview with Vice Media last year in which he revealed that his late father, Pierre Trudeau used his connections in the legal community to help Justin’s brother Michel, who was killed in a B.C. avalanche in 1998, avoid a criminal record after he was caught with marijuana six months before his death.
“He was very confident that we were able to make those charges go away,” Trudeau said, using the anecdote to highlight how minorities and people with fewer means often don’t have the option to clear their name in the justice system.
Cannabis was criminalized in Canada in 1923. According to Blair, who served with Toronto Police for 39 years, “There are nearly half a million Canadians who have a record for simple possession. For many of them it’s the only record they have.”
Others say the number is closer to a million. And that the time to wipe their records clean is now.
“You have half a million people with a marijuana record right now out of what, 38 million people? One in every 70 Canadians has a cannabis conviction? Really?” said Ethan Nadelmann, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as the “real drug Czar” who has led drug reform in the U.S. and a pulling back of convictions disproportionately involving poor people and people of colour.
Canada is already moving to expunge the records of people convicted of consensual same-sex activity under Bill C-66, the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act, passed by the House of Commons last December.
Nadelmann said it’s morally unjust to treat people who were “doing nothing except possessing or growing or using” pot as “immoral human beings who deserve to be punished.”
“It’s important to expedite this process of expungement.”
Currently, people can apply to have their records suspended under the federal Criminal Records Act, but that process involves lengthy wait times and a pricey $631 application fee. Nadelmann is the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, which offers free “expungement clinics” in California for people seeking legal advice to clear their records.
In Canada, Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said the Trudeau government could introduce a new piece of legislation entirely specific to expunging cannabis possession records.
“The simplest way to start is to start with just possession,” Boyd said. “And there’s no reason for not doing that the minute legalization takes place. California is doing it; many other jurisdictions in the states are doing it.”
The U.S. bans individuals with possession convictions, and Canada shares conviction data with the U.S., Boyd said. “But if it’s made clear there is some sort of pardon in place or suspension of record, presumably that will have an impact on the border. But that’s outside of our capability in Canada to deal with.”
The cannabis act allows adults to possess up to 30 grams of legally produced pot and sets the minimum age for purchase and use at 18. Youth aged 12 to 18 will be able to possess up to five grams of marijuana before being criminally charged.
With files from The Canadian Press
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