The government of Canada is mulling over the idea of adding pardons for cannabis offenders to their reforms of the nation's marijuana laws. It's a great idea in theory, but it makes no sense for Canada’s governing party to pursue since they are set to increase the number of marijuana infractions as part of their plan to legalize recreational use.
Canada’s governing Liberal Party plans to consider pot pardons later this year when the party holds its national policy conventions in April, according to a recent report from The Canadian Press. The Liberal Party has also opened up a channel to discuss pardons and other policy ideas on its website.
Surely this is great news for those in favour of progressive drug policies, right? Yet at the same time, it would be absolutely hypocritical for the federal Liberals to implement pot pardons.
Why? Because their upcoming bill to legalize marijuana, Bill C-45, adds 45 cannabis offences to the Criminal Code, including a law that specifically criminalizes the possession of ‘illicit’ cannabis – the purchase of even one joint from an illegal dispensary or street dealer. If prosecuted as an indictable offence, that crime carries a punishment of up to five years in prison.
Sure, there is an option for police to issue a ticket instead of arresting the individual. But that’s at the discretion of the officer. So the consumer is at the mercy of law enforcement, and we already know that certain segments of the population feel the disproportionate impact of law enforcement, including visible minorities.
Crimes of Inconvenience
Now let's stop for a moment to consider how incoherent parts of Canada’s plan to legalize marijuana are. You have legislation that simultaneously permits Canadians to store an unlimited amount of marijuana in their private residence (unlike in Colorado, California or any other jurisdiction), while at the same time criminalizing Canadians who decide to continue buying small amounts of cannabis on the street or from illegal dispensaries.
And a lot of Canadians will likely depend on those illicit sources since there are many holes in the distribution systems that are being set up in every province and territory. Many remote and sparsely populated regions like Nunavut and other northern territories will depend on online sales that will take days and perhaps even weeks to deliver. So anyone wanting to smoke a joint on the spur of the moment is more likely to buy one from the guy around the corner.
Meanwhile, even populous provinces like Ontario will face gaps in the supply chain as the province plans to open only 40 stores in the first year of legalization. That's woefully insufficient for a population of over 13.5 million people spread out over more than 350,000 square miles.
On top of that, few provinces have finalized deals with licensed growers to provide those pot shops with inventory. That means when stores open this summer, customers might see nothing but empty shelves, leaving them with no option but to seek alternative providers.
So if the law is strictly enforced, the country will likely wind up criminalizing more and more Canadians than before for cannabis offences - even though they're really just victims of inconvenience.
With all that in mind, it would take some cognitive dissonance for the Liberal Party to fast-track pardons of simple possession while at the same time going ahead with prosecuting other cases of simple possession in 2018 and beyond.
Fines or Crimes?
The government can and should make selling and possession for the purpose of selling against the law for individuals – legalization was never going to be a free-for-all. But Canadians shouldn’t face criminal penalties – let alone prison sentences – for the purchase of personal amounts of marijuana just because it’s not from a government-authorized store. Fines would be more appropriate to encourage compliance by the consumer, but the possibility of imprisonment defies the point of legalization.
Otherwise, it does not make sense for the government to pardon some cases of possession while rigidly punishing others simply because the people caught with the exact same product had purchased it from the wrong source.