When U.S. President Joe Biden last week pardoned thousands of Americans with a federal criminal record for simple marijuana possession, it was largely symbolic act.
Most cannabis charges in that country are levied at the state and civic level, so only a limited number of people qualify for Mr. Biden’s blanket pardon. But symbols can have deep meaning: Mr. Biden was a prominent senator through the long era of the war on drugs in America. Last week, he helped the country, where cannabis is now legal in 20 states, take one more step out of it.
Which brings us to Canada. Possession of pot was legalized four years ago. So what happened to the criminal records of Canadians convicted of simple possession? A criminal record can hang over someone for years or decades; the widespread use of background checks can make it harder for someone to find housing, go to school, cross the border, or get a job.
Canadians who have completed a sentence are eligible to apply for a pardon. However, getting one can be difficult and time consuming. And that’s a problem throughout the pardon system, and not just for those with historical convictions for cannabis possession. The Liberals have long talked about fixing this, but have mostly not done so.
With pot, there was strong support to include pardons as part of the 2018 legalization of the drug. The C.D. Howe Institute rightly called it an “economic waste” to saddle people with criminal records for something that is no longer a crime.
Ottawa responded by removing the fee to apply for a cannabis possession pardon – the fee for other pardons was, at the time, more than $600 – but the Liberals stopped short of simply and automatically expunging all past convictions. This page supported that further step.
Estimates of how many Canadians might benefit have ranged from as few as 10,000 to several hundred thousand. Consider that in the two decades from 1998 to 2017, there were an average of about 50,000 arrests for holding cannabis every year.
Critics said that the Liberals’ half-measures were likely to be ineffective; the critics appear to have been right. In the three years since the free pot pardons opened, barely any Canadians have received one. As of last week, just 631 applications had been accepted, according to the Parole Board of Canada.
In the U.S., California aimed to clear more than 200,000 cases but got bogged down. Washington State, among the first to legalize pot, didn’t allow some pardons until five years in. Illinois has been the leader; its governor last week said the state has pardoned or expunged convictions for nearly 800,000 people.
Expungement, a full erasure of a record, is rare in Canada. That’s a problem because, even after a pardon, a criminal record may still pop up in checks. In 2018, Ottawa moved to expunge records of convictions for sex between same-sex partners, but insisted cannabis charges didn’t qualify for the same treatment because they weren’t “historically unjust.”
And a decade ago, the Harper government made it harder to get a pardon. In fact, they’re no longer officially called pardons; they were renamed “record suspensions.” The government also quadrupled the application charge, extended the time people have to wait to apply from three and five years to five and 10, and made that retroactive. The courts struck down that last provision.
The Liberals have mused about reforms and last June they finally tabled a bill, specifically to restore the shorter waiting periods – but the bill died when an election was called. The bill has not been resurrected, though “reforms to the pardons system” is on the to-do list in the public safety minister’s mandate letter.
One change the Liberals finally did make late last year was to drop the cost of applying for a pardon. It’s now $50.
To complete what it started, the Liberal government should revive its bill of last June, and pass it. People who have done their time and thereafter have lived on the right side of the law deserve to be helped to move on with their lives, not hindered. A record, except for the most serious crimes, should not be lifelong.
Second, the Liberals should take another look at pot pardons – with Illinois as an example. The process of getting rid of a record for simple possession should be straightforward. Ideally, it should be automatic.