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Part of cannabis laws and regulations

For many Canadians, the legalization of cannabis this fall will come too late.

It’s unclear exactly how many people currently have criminal records for simple pot possession. But more than 17,000 were charged with the crime in this country in 2016 alone, and that was down from the year prior.

Like the many who were busted before them, they may continue to face serious damage to their life prospects – their records potentially impacting their ability to rent homes, find jobs, travel abroad and get custody of their kids. To continue punishing them, after the new law comes into effect on Oct. 17, would be pointless. And there is an obvious remedy: The federal government should pass a law expunging criminal convictions for cannabis possession for anyone who applies.

Canadians can already apply to have their records suspended, but that process is inadequate. Pardons only become available either five or 10 years after a conviction, and entail a hefty fee. They can also be rescinded for bad behaviour and set aside in some circumstances by the Public Safety Minister. None of that would be true of expungement.

The best argument for moving swiftly derives from the disturbing demographics of convictions. While, again, there is not exact data, cannabis arrest figures are highly suggestive. An investigation and analysis last year by reporters from Vice News and criminologists from the University of Toronto, based on data made available by some police forces, found glaring disparities. Indigenous people in Regina were reported to be almost nine times as likely as white people to get busted for cannabis possession in recent years, for example, while black people in Halifax were more than five times as likely as white people to get arrested for it there.

There is recent precedent for destroying criminal records for people convicted under obsolete laws: a government bill to expunge the records of Canadians convicted of consensual same-sex acts, which received royal assent in June. The ban on pot possession did not involve the same level of injustice as the targeting of gay people. But it still led to disproportionate punishment, meted out inconsistently. Those unlucky enough to have been convicted under it deserve a clean slate.

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