One year after the Canadian government created a program to quickly and affordably clear cannabis possession charges from people’s criminal records, just 265 records have been cleared.
Applicants can have small cannabis possession charges suspended from their criminal record so a background check for a job or housing comes up clean.
The Liberal Party estimated 10,000 people would be eligible for the program, while other organizations like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health calculate 500,000 Canadians would be eligible.
But as of Aug. 7, 2020, barely a fraction of the anticipated applicants have completed the process.
According to numbers from the Parole Board of Canada, 467 people have applied to the program: 265 were approved; 196 were denied due to ineligibility or incomplete applications; four are being processed; and two were discontinued.
“It’s embarrassing. Justin Trudeau should be embarrassed. [Minister of Public Safety] Bill Blair should be embarrassed. They should be ashamed of themselves,” NORML Canada executive director and cannabis lawyer Caryma Sa’d told Mugglehead.
“If of your successful applications nearly half of those have been rejected, your process isn’t accessible and there are too many barriers and it’s not even coming close to the impact that was promised,” she said.
When the program first launched, the federal Liberal Party framed it as a way to undo the wrongs of cannabis prohibition.
In a May 2019 House of Commons debate, Liberal MP Peter Schiefke said criminal records aren’t helpful when they block non-violent offenders from participating in society.
“This is particularly true when the activity for which the individual was convicted is no longer illegal and when the members of certain communities are disproportionately affected,” Schiefke said.
During the same debate, the Conservative Party criticized the program because they estimated 250,000 Canadians were eligible and were concerned the project would be underfunded as it was set up to serve 10,000 people.
Turns out both estimations way overshot, and that means the government needs to change up the process to help more people apply, Sa’d said.
When the program was introduced, the government waived the $631 application fee and expedited the five-to-10-year waiting period.
Before Covid-19 disruptions, applications took around 6 days to approve, Parole Board spokesperson Iulia Pescarus Popa said in an email. That process was slowed due to the pandemic but has recently returned to normal, Popa added.
But clearly the government needs to do more, Sa’d said.
— Kira London-Nadeau (@LondonNadeau) August 10, 2020
She proposes a top-down approach that applies to a wider scope of cannabis convictions. That could include people with minor trafficking offences or who grew cannabis at home. The program should also let people with other convictions apply, she said.
Getting all the necessary paperwork organized to apply can be confusing and cost several hundred dollars, Sa’d said. And that’s not including hiring a lawyer or legal aid to help with the process.
“I’ve heard it described as too complicated of an undertaking for the government — for them to go through their records and automatically deal with cannabis offences. They say it’s too hard,” Sa’d said. “In my mind, to put a burden on someone who already suffered the harms of conviction that shouldn’t have transpired, period, I find that problematic. Let the state bare that burden, it’s the least they can do at this point.”
Ultimately, Sa’d would like to see the government offer expungement of cannabis charges instead of a pardon. With a pardon the charge is suspended from a record but can be re-instated. Expungement wipes the charge permanently from a record and has more of a symbolic value where the state recognizes the prosecution never should have taken place, Sa’d said.
This is especially important because cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs were in part built out of racist policies, which has hugely impacted Black and Indigenous communities, she said.
“That puts a moral imperative on the government to acknowledge its part in the wrongs. Expungement, for logistical reasons, would make it easier for the people who are trying to have these convictions removed. More work for the government, but a valuable end goal,” Sa’d said.
Cannabis Amnesty is also calling for expungement of all cannabis possession charges.
People with additional convictions might not be able to apply for the expedited pardon program, but can apply for a regular suspension if they meet the criteria laid out in the Criminal Records Act, Parole Board spokesperson Popa said.
In the U.S. state of Illinois, the governor granted 11,017 pardons for “low-level marijuana convictions” one day before the state legalized recreational cannabis earlier this year.
“We’re addressing the past harms of discriminatory prosecution of drug laws,” Governor Jay Pritzker said in a January press conference.
Top image of the B.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeal in Vancouver. Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons