By Richard Cannings
Cannabis was legalized in Canada this October, but unfortunately the federal government didn’t include one important piece in that legislation: expungement of the records of a half million Canadians with criminal records for simple possession of cannabis.
These people are saddled with a criminal record for doing something that we now consider completely legal. And a criminal record is a serious problem—you are barred from international travel, barred from many jobs, and even barred from many community volunteer positions such as coaching. In Toronto, 15 per cent of people on social welfare cite “Need for a Record Suspension” as a key barrier to employment. Renting an apartment with a criminal record can be a problem.
My colleague Murray Rankin, MP for Victoria, has tabled a private members bill in the House of Commons that would expunge these records, and I spoke in favour of the bill last Friday. For their part, the government is suggesting that they may introduce legislation next year allowing those with possession records to apply for pardons, but expungement is much more appropriate and effective in this case than pardons.
First, pardons are time-consuming and expensive. Applicants must wait at least five years after the end of their sentence before applying. From there, they must pay $631 and fill out a lengthy form that requires them to submit information from police stations and local courts. After that it usually takes about two years to hear if you’re successful. The government has said that planned legislation may change these rules for cannabis possession records.
Secondly, pardons, or record suspensions as they are now called, don’t eliminate criminal records—they simply separate them into a different category. Border agents or police officers will likely be able to see that someone has had a criminal record for possession and a subsequent pardon. What is needed here, what would be a truly just solution, is to eliminate the record altogether—expungement.
Expungement is usually carried out for groups of people who have criminal records for acts now considered legal, especially groups that have faced historical injustices. This is certainly the case for cannabis convictions, which have been given disproportionately to marginalized Canadians, especially visible minorities.
If you’re an indigenous person in Regina, you’re nine times more likely to have a possession record than if you’re nonindigenous; in Vancouver you are seven times more likely. If you’re black in Halifax, you’re five times more likely to have a possession record than if you’re not black; in Toronto that figure is three times more likely. These figures have absolutely no relation to the rate of cannabis use in different groups, or in different parts of the country.
The government admits this. The Prime Minister publicly stated that “People from minority communities, marginalized communities, without economic resources, are not going to have that kind of option to go through and clear their name in the justice system. That’s one of the fundamental unfairnesses of this current system is that it affects different communities in a different way.” Bill Blair, the minister who shepherded the legalization legislation through the House, said in debate that “the failed system of criminal prohibition has resulted in the criminalization of hundreds of thousands of Canadians and contributed to an unjust disparity and impact on vulnerable communities.”
It’s time to fix these unjust criminal records. It’s been done in several U.S. states—California, Vermont, Delaware and North Dakota—and it should be done in Canada. I sincerely hope the government supports this expungement bill that would clear the unjust criminal record for these Canadians so that they can get this millstone off their necks.