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Cannabis Goodale prepares amnesty for pot possession offences

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 26, 2019 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Part of cannabis laws and regulations

Federal legislation providing free and fast pardons for the thousands of Canadians convicted of the simple possession of cannabis could be tabled as early as this week, according to the public safety minister.

Ralph Goodale announced Wednesday afternoon that he was about to give notice of a bill that could be tabled as early as Friday setting out the amnesty process for those who lost court cases for possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis. His office would not provide any more details regarding the bill, which the minister first announced back on Oct. 17, the day 95 years of cannabis prohibition effectively ended.

In the past, Mr. Goodale has stated the application to obtain a pardon will be free of charge, adding that applicants will not have to wait for a set period of time after they have finished serving their sentence. Before the drug was legalized, possessing up to 30 grams of cannabis was punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

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The upcoming legislation signals Ottawa’s refusal to go further and expunge these criminal records – a move critics say would make it easier to undo the harms imposed on hundreds of thousands of Canadians saddled with these convictions.

A pardon, or record suspension, means a person’s criminal record is separated from other records and is only disclosed in limited circumstances. So, while a pardon doesn’t erase a record completely, it can make it easier to get a job or travel.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously acknowledged that a disproportionate number of these people are minorities who have suffered from a discriminatory enforcement of the law under prohibition.

In December, the Commons began debating a private member’s bill from NDP MP Murray Rankin that would expunge criminal records for what he said were 500,000 Canadians with convictions for simple possession. The House of Commons will rise at the end of June, giving the Liberals until then to get their legislation through the House of Commons and the Senate.

Mr. Goodale has previously defended his government’s preference for pardons as being the right policy because expungement is only valid in “cases where there is a profound historical injustice that needed to be corrected."

“The laws with respect to cannabis that have existed historically, we believe, are out of step with current mores and views in Canada, but are not of the same nature as the historic, social injustice that was imposed in relation to the LGBTQ2 community," he told reporters the day cannabis was officially made legal.

Annamaria Enenajor, a Toronto-based lawyer directing the national Cannabis Amnesty campaign, said the upcoming bill represents the minimum the government could do with respect to this file, noting that automatically expunging the records puts the onus on the authorities – not individuals – to apply for such relief.

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“It’s a lost opportunity, it’s going halfway to where it needs to be,” she said Wednesday.

She noted that the application process for obtaining a pardon is “quite complex” and requires people to demonstrate they have been in “good conduct up until the point in time they wish to have their records expunged,” which can be problematic since the original low-level cannabis conviction could often have acted as a gateway to reduced job prospects and further criminality.

“There’s a spiral effect when one is convicted of a crime, which leads them to be more disenfranchised from society and leads them to fewer opportunities for lawful employment,” Ms. Enenajor said.

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With a report from The Canadian Press

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