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Politics Canadians want Ottawa to erase old marijuana convictions, poll finds

Publicly, many provinces have been loath to comment on the Liberal Party key campaign promise of cannabis legalization in the previous federal election.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A clear majority of Canadians want the federal government to issue pardons to fellow citizens who have a criminal record for marijuana possession, a new poll has found.

The survey stands to buttress the call of marijuana activists, lawyers and politicians who argue that the old criminal records will be a legal anomaly once marijuana is legalized for recreational use by all adults.

The federal government tabled legislation last month that aimed to legalize marijuana by the middle of next year. Despite widespread pressure, the government has refused to call on law enforcement to stop charging marijuana users with simple possession while the legislation goes through Parliament, or to promise an amnesty for past convictions after the adoption of the new law.

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According to a poll by The Globe and Mail/Nanos Research, however, 62 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support the calls for a pardon for every person with a criminal record for marijuana possession. By comparison, 35 per cent of respondents said they oppose or somewhat oppose the move.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a public forum organized by Vice Canada last month that the current system was unfair, leaving vulnerable and marginalized Canadians more likely to end up with criminal records than those from privileged backgrounds. However, he stopped short of promising an amnesty.

"We'll take steps to look at what we can do for those folks who have criminal records for something that would no longer be criminal," Mr. Trudeau said.

Last year, a C.D. Howe Institute report urged the government to pardon everyone who has been convicted of marijuana possession, pointing out even a minor possession conviction severely limits a person's ability to work and travel.

"If you have a criminal conviction, it automatically disqualifies you from a number of positions," said Anindya Sen, the University of Waterloo economics professor who penned the report. "That's just economic waste. You have people on social assistance who could otherwise be employed and contribute to the economy."

Estimates vary on the number of people with simple possession convictions in the country. Tens of thousands of Canadians have been charged with marijuana possession every year since the 1970s. In 2015, police reported 49,000 cannabis possession offences.

The Nanos survey also found that 8 per cent of Canadians said they currently do not use cannabis, but will do so once it becomes legal.

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By comparison, 73 per cent of Canadians said they are not users and will not start after the legislation is adopted, and 12 per cent said their current usage will remain at the same level even if the product is legalized.

Only 1 per cent of respondents characterized themselves as current users whose consumption will go up in the legal regime.

Asked about their confidence in Health Canada's ability to test the safety and potency of Canada's marijuana supply, 61 per cent of respondents expressed confidence, compared with 35 per cent who had doubts.

The Nanos survey was conducted between April 29 and May 5, reaching a random survey of 1,000 Canadians that is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The legislation known as Bill C-45 would lift the prohibition on the recreational use of cannabis that goes back to 1923, positioning Canada as a leading country on the relaxation of laws related to illicit drugs. If adopted as planned by the summer of 2018, Canada will become the first G7 country – and the second in the world after Uruguay – in which cannabis use is legal across the land.

The legislation would allow all Canadians 18 or older (older still depending on the province) to buy marijuana by mail and in provincially regulated retail spaces, or to grow up to four plants at home. The possession limit of dried cannabis would be set at 30 grams, while edible cannabis products would be legalized at a later date.

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