Canadians saddled with criminal records for possessing cannabis can soon apply for fast, free pardons, but professionals working in the field aren’t expecting a mad rush at the door.
Bill C-93, which waives the $631 fee and the five-to-10-year waiting period for pardon applications, received royal assent Friday and will soon come into force. The legislation aims to remove barriers to employment, housing, travel and volunteering opportunities for people who were convicted of simple possession before recreational cannabis use was made legal last fall.
According to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office, about 250,000 Canadians have been charged with simple possession and an estimated 10,000 criminal records will be eligible for pardons under C-93.
Michael Ashby, director of the National Pardon Centre, said he isn’t anticipating a big uptake because most criminal records for cannabis are not for a single pot charge and therefore won’t be eligible.
“For the meantime, we expect it to be business as usual,” he said.
Most often, he said, a simple cannabis possession charge comes in combination with another charge, such as impaired driving or assault.
Andrew Tanenbaum, director of Pardons Canada, said most people who wanted or needed pardons already have gotten theirs; he suggested the number of people who didn’t apply simply because of the fee is relatively small.
He said police and prosecutors haven’t pursued simple pot possession charges in the last several years to avoid adding burdens to clogged court dockets.
“The courts are so backed up that they seemed to be preferring to deal with more serious offences,” Tanenbaum said.
Those who were convicted of simple possession likely pleaded down from a more serious charge, such as trafficking or cultivation, he said.
The streamlined application process will soon be published on the Parole Board of Canada’s website. A toll-free phone number and a dedicated email address will be available to help people with their applications.
In introducing the legislation earlier this year, Goodale said it’s important to remove roadblocks to successful reintegration of former offenders who have served their sentences.
Parole Board of Canada spokesperson Iulia Pescarus Popa said there are no definitive statistics available on the number of Canadians with convictions for simple possession of cannabis, so the board can’t estimate the number of applications it might receive. But the PBC is gearing up to receive applications when the legislation comes into force later this summer.
“We are currently working to ensure that we have staff trained and in place to process cannabis-related application volumes and ensure their timely processing,” she said.
In addition to online information guides and forms, a toll-free line and a dedicated email address, the PBC will conduct outreach to a wide range of stakeholders with information on cannabis pardons, including visible minorities and Indigenous people.
NDP called for expungement
The Cannabis Act, which legalized and regulated the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana for recreational use, came into force on Oct. 17, 2018.
A pardon, or record suspension, does not erase the fact you were convicted of a crime, but it keeps the record separate from other criminal records.
The NDP has maintained that record suspensions are not enough and has called for expungements. The government has said expungements are reserved for cases where a law has been found to be unconstitutional.
The Liberal government allowed expungements for past criminalization of same-sex activity by consenting adults, allowing for the removal of records of convictions that would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms today.