Pot Shots: Righting the wrongs of criminal records for cannabis possession

Credit: Suharu Ogawa

Will the federal government pardon those convicted of possessing pot before it became legal?

Parked on the north side of Robson Street, its starboard side doors flung wide open, at first glance the green van looks like one of any number of food trucks that have clogged Vancouver’s arteries, both figuratively and literally, in recent years. But this particular vehicle isn’t selling gooey grilled cheese or meat-on-a-stick of unknown genus and/or species. It is, however, serving up food for thought.

Since it first hit the road last September, the Pardon Truck, co-sponsored by Kelowna-based licensed producer Doja Cannabis and the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty, has criss-crossed the nation in pursuit of a single goal: to press the Liberal government to toss the criminal records of roughly half a million Canadians who ran afoul of pot possession laws before recreational cannabis was legalized on October 17, 2018.

Wait a second: Isn’t this a moot point now? Haven’t we, like, been there, done that? Not quite. You may think that since cannabis possession is no longer a crime, its new legal status would automatically confer amnesty upon those who were once branded as criminals. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

Some background. On March 1, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tabled Bill C-93, the Liberal plan to fast-track pardons for Canadians who had been convicted of possessing less than 30 grams of weed. The usual filing fee of $631 would be waived, as would the traditional three- to five-year wait to apply to have your record suspended. So far, so enlightened. But there are problems baked into this approach.

First, even though the crime for which they were convicted no longer exists, the onus is on the criminal to apply to have their record suspended; this is a step that many Canadians, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, simply won’t take. Second, a pardon, like pot from the 1970s, is a half-assed product at best: even after it’s been granted, your criminal record isn’t destroyed but is kept “separate and apart,” so as not to have its reputation sullied by associating with all those other criminal records, one supposes.

The upshot is that you are still a criminal, albeit one who has been given a second chance by a government that has magnanimously acted to “remove barriers associated with a criminal conviction.” (Not all barriers, mind. The U.S. doesn’t care a slim whit if you’ve been pardoned. If you’ve been flagged for pot possession at the border in the past, you’re in the American system for life.)

The lawyers, activists and weed entrepreneurs behind the Pardon Truck are calling for a blanket expungement—the admission that convictions for cannabis possession represent a historical wrong and should therefore be stricken entirely. It would be as if charges had never been filed. “For expungement, the Government recognizes that those whose record of conviction constitutes a historical injustice should not be viewed as ‘former offenders,'” notes the Parole Board of Canada. Sounds good to me. And, I’m sure, to groups that were disproportionately charged and convicted under the pot laws—First Nations and other visible minorities, to name two.

The expungement of past criminal records has been used before, and by this government. In December 2017, it passed Bill C-66, erasing the criminal record of anyone convicted of having committed acts of “gross indecency.” Please don’t get me wrong: Canada’s criminalization of gay sex was one of the more shameful abuses of the justice system, and I’m not arguing for equivalence here. I am saying that remedies are available, though. And that they should be used.

So when you see the Pardon Truck roll into your ‘hood, you may want to consider signing its petition. We’ve come a long way, certainly, but for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, and the Pardon Truck, there’s still a long, winding road ahead.