While cannabis advocates and consumers celebrate the impending legalization of marijuana set to take effect in Canada on October 17, there remains a rather dark cloud hanging over the issue of pardons for those convicted of marijuana-related offenses.
According to Statistics Canada, there were approximately 55,000 marijuana-related offences – including possession, trafficking, production or distribution - reported to police in 2016. That same year, the C.D. Howe Institute recommended the government consider pardoning those convicted of pot possession, as well as dropping outstanding charges, in order to free up resources for regulating the legalized market.
Yet more than two years later, it’s estimated that almost half a million Canadians have records for cannabis possession charges—something that will no longer be a punishable offense in three months.
And that doesn't sit well with the NDP - one of the opposition parties that are closely scrutinizing the federal government's approach to cannabis reform. Don Davies - the NDP's federal Critic for Health - says his party has been open about its desire to expunge the criminal records of those convicted under old cannabis laws and have attempted to raise the issue of pardons for the better part of a year.
"We actually attempted to amend Bill C-45 to include pardons or some form of pardon process, but it was ruled to be beyond the scope of the bill," Davies told Civilized. "And the fact the bill was drafted and contains nothing dealing with pardons is a structural defect, in my opinion. But I truly don’t think the Liberals had any intention of including anything on pardons in the bill, and I think it’s negligent that the government hasn’t addressed including having a mechanism for the 500,000 Canadians carrying records for something that will be legal in a matter of months."
'Why wait until October 17 to issue a pardon?'
In effort to fix that flaw in the legislation, Davies recently sought unanimous consent from the House of Commons for his motion on marijuana pardons.
"The government should take all necessary steps to immediately provide pardons for those burdened by criminal records for cannabis offences that will soon be legal," the motion read.
The Liberals subsequently voted against Davies’ motion, which failed as a result.
Although the notion of pardoning marijuana offences hasn’t been entirely ruled out by the governing Liberals, the party hasn’t yet fully committed to the idea. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insists they can’t deal with the idea of pardons until the law has changed in October.
Ralph Goodale - Canada's Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness - echoed Trudeau's stance when we reached out to his office for comment.
"Once Bill C-45 is enacted, we will examine how to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted for minor possession offences," the emailed statement read. "Our government is committed to reforming the pardons system. Pardons are the final step in the reintegration process. Inaccessible pardons can be a significant barrier to good employment as many positions require criminal record checks. We want to ensure that the waiting period, fee and purpose of the program are fair, proportionate and productive. We will do that by implementing evidence-based policies that support rehabilitation, prevent crime, and keep our communities safe."
Davies isn’t buying it.
"I can’t come to any rational basis why Mr. Goodale and the Liberal government say they have to wait until marijuana is legal to deal with the issue of pardons,” Davies told Civilized. “If someone has a criminal record for a possession charge from three years ago, why wait until Oct. 17 to issue a pardon, provided they are not currently involved in any crime otherwise? If you want to talk perversity, there is someone is some courthouse in Canada that has been convicted of cannabis possession in the last week, and that’s something that’s going to happen almost every day between now and October 17. It would only be right that the government declare a moratorium for possession offences that will soon be legal. The current process is negligent at best and malevolent at worst."
While the issue of pardons is not set to be formally resolved prior to October 17, Davies admits feeling some relief that the Liberals are signalling they will deal with the matter in the foreseeable future. That's a big step considering that as recently as last year, the Liberal party was reticent to even consider the notion of pardons.
"At the end of the day, I’m happy they’re willing to deal with it. But from an ethics and policy standpoint, I’m not happy. We’re not talking about halting prosecutions against big importers, but just those with simple possession or sales charges. Those are the kinds of things that will not be criminal in a matter of another few months."