Pardon Me? The Call to Expunge Canadian Cannabis Records

Canada has passed a bill that will pardon individuals who have been convicted of cannabis crimes. However, some critics argue that the legislation doesn't go far enough.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

On this day last year, Canada legalized marijuana for recreational use nationwide. While the rollout was admittedly slow, it was nonetheless a step forward for cannabis enthusiasts, consumers and entrepreneurs alike.

Following the legalization, many wondered what might happen to those who had previously been convicted of a cannabis-related crime, given that cannabis possession was no longer a crime.

Well, the Canadian government was right on it, as the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale—along with three other federal cabinet ministers—held a news conference the same day cannabis was legalized in Canada.

The conference confirmed that the Liberal government would introduce legislation that allowed Canadians who had been charged with cannabis possession to apply for a pardon. Goodale then went on to say that applicants won't have to pay a fee or suffer through the long waiting periods typically associated with the pardon process.

Historically, a pardon application can take up to ten years to process and cost $653. However, following the federal government's decision to pass the proposed bill—known as Bill C-93—in July 2019, both the fee and the waiting period for applicants were subsequently waived.

On the matter, Goodale stated that granting pardons is "a matter of basic fairness when older laws from a previous era are changed". 

Cannabis possession convictions weren't rare prior to October 17th, 2018, and left many with tarnished records for possessing what we now know to be a relatively harmless, medicinal plant.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC)—which is often involved in drug-crime cases—found that more than 250,000 convictions had been recorded over the years for people caught having less than 30 grams of cannabis. Other estimates pegged the number even higher, with the Campaign for Cannabis Advocacy arguing that approximately 500,000 Canadians currently have marijuana possession convictions.

In the two years prior to legalization, nearly 7,000 people aged 25 and under were charged with marijuana possession, with 774 who were convicted. On top of this, over 8,300 people older than 25 were charged, with another 1,361 convicted.

Though some argue that merely pardoning a record isn't enough; instead, they are calling for the expungement of cannabis convictions. But what's the difference?

Expungement Versus Pardon

While some may use the term expungement and pardon interchangeably, the differences between the two are very important.

A pardon, in essence, is the government accepting wrongdoing. The criminal conviction remains, and the previously convicted will still have to tell potential employers and tenants that they were convicted of a drug crime. The only difference is that they may also tell the employer or landowner that they were officially pardoned from their crime.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, many argue that pardons are merely symbolic, and still leave those convicted of cannabis crimes with a tarnished record.

An expungement, on the other hand, would clear cannabis convictions from an indivual's record entirely – in essence, tearing up the conviction and throwing it in the trash.

This means that individuals applying for housing applications or jobs would no longer have to signal that they had been previously convicted, which would—in theory—decrease the likelihood of discriminatory rejections.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) estimates that roughly 10,000 Canadians are expected to apply for the expedited pardons proposed under Bill C-93, while others—according to the Organized Crime Reduction Minister, Bill Blair—claim that the number could be as high 70,000 to 80,000.

However, critics are arguing that if the number is indeed as low as 10,000, then the government should take the extra step of expunging their records.

One advocate pushing for expungement is Murray Rankin, the NDP's deputy justice critic, who said "if indeed there are only 10,000 to be rescued by this reform, doesn't that make the argument even more strong that the human resources required to expunge their records is not nearly the task that we thought when it was hundreds of thousands?"

And Mr. Rankin isn't alone. Fellow expungement advocates include the "Pardon Truck," run by the Cannabis Amnesty campaign and licensed cannabis producer DOJA, which tours around Canada collecting signatures in support of expunging cannabis crimes.

In an article published by the Vancouver Sun, criminal defense lawyer, Sarah Leamon, agreed with the call for expungement, stating that those convicted of cannabis possession "no longer need to have the label of criminal." 

"What an expungement says is you were convicted of this criminal act but you never should have been," Leamon said. 

"You are not morally culpable for it, this never should have been a crime, we were wrong to have prosecuted it and it was an unjust conviction, essentially."

Conversely, defenders of the pardon system argue that while governments should recognize that cannabis is now legal, it was still illegal at the time individuals committed a crime.

The Future of Cannabis in Canada

While it doesn't look like the government will budge on cannabis expungement in Canada, there's certainly no shortage of vocal advocates.

Murray Rankin has already put forward a bill in the Commons that would expunge these criminal convictions. Rankin is also supported by Toronto-based lawyer Annamaria Enenajor, who also argued that Ottawa should expunge cannabis records.

Enenajor pointed out that if the 10,000 estimate is correct, it's only one thousand more people than the federal government suggested may have their records cleared under Bill C-66 due to being convicted of homosexual acts when they were considered criminal.

As we reach the cusp of legalization 2.0, which will legalize a wider range of cannabis form factors such as cannabis edibles, extracts and concentrates, there is a tacit acceptance by the Canadian government that cannabis—in all forms—should and will be socially acceptable.

This new wave of legalization may provide the expungement movement with a second wind, as the stigma surrounding cannabis continues to dissolve and new consumers familiarise themselves with the plant.

And, given the increasing benefits to cannabis consumption which continue to emerge, such as its ability to assist with inflammation, chronic pain and epilepsy—along with its potential as an "exit drug" for people using alcohol, tobacco, and opiates—the stigma seems generally misplaced.

Providing amnesty to those convicted of cannabis crimes would remove barriers to employment, housing and even traveling to certain countries—none of which should be withheld from someone for consuming a plant.

And while Canadian cannabis legalization remains fairly recent, support for the plant continues to grow.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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