It’s easy to read the headlines proclaiming “Canada Legalizes Cannabis” and feel elated. Relaxed. Slightly euphoric. A touch spacey and maybe a bit hungry. In any case, Legalization was a good idea and was executed well all across the country. Kudos, Canada!
But in the wake of such a victory for common sense and public opinion (a majority of Canadians have wanted legalized cannabis since 1997), we also have to remember that for almost a century, Canadians have received criminal convictions for possessing marijuana. Those convictions did not disappear overnight: over 500,000 Canadians are currently living with criminal records relating to cannabis. That’s why we were happy to hear that the Federal Government has promised to move forward with easy-to-access pardons for Canadians.
The technical term is “Record Suspensions”, and according to this Parole Board of Canada document, it doesn’t actually erase your conviction. Rather, getting a Record Suspension means that your prior conviction won’t appear in any police searches or background checks done by prospective employers. It’s like when you take all of your favourite chocolate out of your Halloween stash and hide it separately from the rest of your haul so your siblings don’t steal it – the chocolate (your conviction) still exists, but other people can’t find it.
If that sounds like a bit “not as good as it originally sounded,” then yes, you’re correct. Canadians will still have to acknowledge their criminal status on official government forms. Canadians will still have to identify themselves as a convicted citizen at international borders, which may still impact travel opportunities, even if it’s now easier to find work in Canada.
And this isn’t a new thing, either. Canadians were always free to apply for a Record Suspension, as long as they paid an oddly-specific $631 fee and more than five years had passed since their conviction. The proposed plan put forth by the Federal Government (there’s no legislation yet, but it should be coming soon) just waives the fee and the wait times, as long as your conviction was solely for cannabis possession.
Expungement: should it happen?
Critics of the Federal Government are calling for more drastic amnesty steps, including Expungement. Expungement would totally destroy all records of criminal convictions. Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau expunged convictions related to Homosexual activity, in part because, while these activities were illegal at the time, the laws themselves are now considered immoral. So could the potentially-immoral prohibition of cannabis also result in expunged records?
Possibly, but not likely. While some would call the prohibition of cannabis in Canada to be wrongful from the get-go, precedence is not on their side. In the 1920’s, Canadian provinces prohibited the sale and creation of alcohol. We checked and as far as we could tell, the Canadian Government did not expunge the criminal records of bootleggers and those caught illegally consuming alcohol. This seems to be a more relevant example to expunging cannabis criminal records, and it doesn’t point to expungement happening any time soon.
A good step
We’ve been sounding a bit critical this whole post, so let us take a step back and say: this is a good thing. While pardons have always been accessible to Canadians, there have also always been hoops to jump through. Removing those hoops should be applauded as a good thing, especially since cannabis prohibition has disproportionately hurt those who couldn’t afford to jump through those hoops.
At the end of the day, even if we think more should be done, this is a good first step.