Canada Passes Bill to Expedite Pardons for Cannabis Possession

The Canadian government has finally passed legislation that will expedite the pardon process for people with minor cannabis convictions.

Bill C-93 was given Royal Assent by the Canadian government late last week. The passing of the bill introduces a number of welcome changes to Canada's pardon system for people with past cannabis convictions. Previously, former offenders would have had to wait anywhere from five to ten years before they qualified for a pardon. And once they were eligible to apply, they had to pay a pardon fee of C$631.

Under the new law, people with cannabis convictions can apply for pardons immediately and at no cost.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said passing the bill was the right thing to do. "People who have a criminal record only for simple possession of cannabis should be allowed to shed the burden and stigma of that record, making it easier to get a job, get an education, rent an apartment, travel, volunteer in their community and simply move on with their lives," Minister Goodale said in a statement.

Under Bill C-93 some 10,000 Canadians will be eligible for pardons. That might seem like a lot, but it's a small fraction of the 250,000 people who carry cannabis possession convictions in the country, according to Michael Ashby - Director of the National Pardon Centre. Ashby also doesn't expect too many people to take advantage of the new program because most cannabis convictions are not for a single marijuana charge, so they won't be eligible for pardons.

"For the meantime, we expect it to be business as usual," Ashby told CBC.

Pardons Canada Director Andrew Tanenbaum also believes the new program won't see too much uptake, but for different reasons than Ashby. Tanenbaum believes that the number of people who have not appleid for pardons because of the old fee is relatively small, so making pardons free won't cause a spike in applications. 

Tanenbaum added that the number of pardon applications will likely stay the same because police simply haven't been prosecuting that many small cannabis possession cases in recent years anyhow.

"The courts are so backed up that they seemed to be preferring to deal with more serious offenses," Tanenbaum said.

In many cases, courts arrived at convictions for simple possession by letting defendants plead down their case from from bigger charges like trafficking and cultivation.

Despite this, the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) said they are preparing outreach programs to help individuals become aware that applying for cannabis-related pardons is now free under Canadian law. The PBC will also post information about the process on their website. While they do not have any estimates on how many people are eligible for pardon, they are preparing for increased volumes of inquiries.

"We are currently working to ensure that we have staff trained and in place to process cannabis-related application volumes and ensure their timely processing," said PBC spokesperson Iulia Pescarus Popa.

The launch of the expedited pardons program was originally slated to launch earlier this year, but the bill hit some roadblocks as well as pushback from the Liberal government's opponents. Canada's left-wing NDP have criticized the Liberals for not implementing full expungement of criminal records. While a pardon forgives past crimes, expungement removes the conviction for the criminal record entirely. So opponents have reason to believe that the bill doesn't do enough to give a fresh start to former cannabis offenders.

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