Canadians who have been convicted for simple cannabis possession have a free and quicker way to apply for pardons, the federal government announced last week — but critics say a pot pardon doesn’t go far enough and are calling for full expungement.
Federal Justice Minister David Lametti unveiled a new online application system in Montreal on Aug. 1. The government’s Bill C-93, which passed in June and went into full force this month, speeds up the pardon application process for Canadians with criminal records for possessing 30 grams of cannabis by removing both the five-year wait time and the $631 payment to the parole board.
Lametti told reporters the new pardoning system will help remove barriers to employment, housing, travel and volunteering for those with previous convictions for simple pot possession before it became legal for recreational use on Oct. 17, 2018.
“Applicants will no longer have to wait a single minute and will not owe the parole board a single cent,” said Lametti. “We know that this is particularly significant for many in minority communities, including black and Indigenous Canadians who have been disproportionately affected by the enforcement of cannabis laws.”
Online applications are available on the Parole Board of Canada’s website, and an email and toll-free number will help answer users’ questions.
Lametti said anyone who is currently serving a sentence for minor pot possession will have to finish their sentence before they can apply. But he added to his knowledge there is no one in a Canadian jail with such a charge and the rule is meant for Canadians that may have outstanding community service obligations.
Pardons don’t guarantee U.S. travel
The federal government said an estimated 250,000 Canadians have some kind of cannabis possession conviction, and it expects to see tens of thousands of applications.
But experts say the government shouldn’t expect a flood of applications because police were making less arrests for possession leading up to legalization, and many who have wanted pardons have already received theirs. Also, many possession charges are bundled with other charges such as impaired driving, which cannot be pardoned.
Before cannabis became legal last October, people convicted for possession of marijuana faced up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
A pardon, or record suspension, is not an expungement, meaning the criminal record in question is sealed but not permanently removed. A pardoned conviction won’t appear in the Canadian Police Information Centre database, which is used by United States border officials.
But Canadians with pot pardons heading to the U.S. could still face travel problems because a pardon doesn’t wipe out information in U.S.-controlled databases.
Pardons not enough: critics
Critics say the government’s move to expedite pot pardons is step in the right direction but it doesn’t do enough to right the wrongs for simple marijuana possession, especially for minority groups who have historically been most affected by previous cannabis laws.
“Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had plenty of time to get this right and we are disappointed with their decision to only offer pardons for cannabis possession through an application process. This is not enough,” said NDP candidate Matthew Green in a statement.
In Regina, Indigenous people were almost nine times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, and in Halifax, black people were five times more likely to get arrested than white people, according to the statement.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin tabled a bill this year that called for all records to be expunged, meaning they would be completely erased. Rankin argued that those most affected by pot possession charges, minorities and the poor, are less likely to apply for pardons, and a pardon isn’t permanent and can be revoked. The bill failed in May.
The Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty, launched last year, also have been critical of Bill C-93 because not only does it not provide for the automatic expungement of criminal records relating to cannabis, but the application process is more complicated than the government reports it is.
Under Bill C-93 people will still be required to pay to obtain documents needed to complete their application — including their certified criminal record from the RCMP and any supporting documents from the police of jurisdiction, Cannabis Amnesty says.
The campaign gathered more than 10,000 signatures for a petition, and one of the most notable supporters was actor Seth Rogen.
Rogen, the co-owner of cannabis company Houseplant, took to Instagram on April 20 this year — the stoner holiday known as 4/20 — to voice his concerns that the government’s pardon system won’t give Canadians the freedom they deserve.