Last week, the Liberal government, in a rare move, almost followed through on a key election promise. Marijuana is now legal in Canada — sort of.
During the 2015 election, the Liberals promised to “remove marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code.” And while it is true that Canadians can now smoke and possess marijuana, the new law leaves in place the criminalization of cannabis in many circumstances. This continued criminalization has led to serious concerns about the new law’s constitutionality. But it is a step in the right direction.
It was always a fool’s errand to believe that punishing the users of cannabis would result in any social good. The criminalization of marijuana did not deter the relatively harmless activity of burring one down. Canada’s cannabis policy should have been simple: If you don't like my fire,
then don't come around. Instead, for more than a century, the government arrested, prosecuted and criminalized marijuana use.
And the result is that more than 500,000 Canadians have a criminal record for simple possession of marijuana. Tragically, marijuana laws were disproportionately enforced on marginalized groups and racial minorities.
The stigmatizing effect of a criminal record for simple pot possession is a back-breaking burden that closes employment and educational opportunities. A marijuana conviction makes it harder to volunteer and limits full participation in society. And travel south of the border? Forget about it. It is easier to cross the U.S. border with a serious violent conviction on your criminal record than it is with a minor drug conviction.
The Liberal’s bill that legalized marijuana took no steps to correct this historic wrong. There was no mention of pardons, record suspensions or expungements to be found in C-45.
The government insisted that remedies of historic injustices would only be considered after marijuana was legalized — because, apparently, it is difficult to do more than one thing at a time.
The government had three years to plan for the day when marijuana would be legal, but Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s announcement last week of a plan to pardon historic convictions contained few details.
We were simply told that a plan to offer pardons to those who have completed their marijuana sentence and legislation would be coming soon. There were few details except that the $631 pardon application fee and waiting periods would be waived.
That’s not good enough.
For a century, the government actively prosecuted under the unjust marijuana laws. The government must now be proactive in correcting that historic mistake. Waiving fees and the five-year waiting period is a start, but it’s only the smallest of starts.
In recognition of the serious impacts of a marijuana record and the historic racism of Canada’s drug laws, the government must do more.
The answer is simple — automatic expungements. No cost. No wait. No application. No questions.
By insisting that the sentence is fully completed before a pardon is available, the government discriminates against the poor. Marijuana convictions often were punished by way of a fine. Sometimes, it was a fine of hundreds or thousands of dollars. An impoverished offender who is too poor to pay that fine cannot apply for a pardon.
The application process to obtain a pardon is a complex 10-step process that often requires the assistance of a professional. This means marginalized individuals, people with mental health issues or those who suffer from homelessness will find it difficult to actually make an application.
And then there is the waiting time. The government may waive the five-year waiting period, but there can be delays of up to a year for a pardon application to be processed. There is already a massive backlog of applications, and a flood of hundreds of thousands of new applications won’t help with that delay.
Automatic expungements of criminal records for simple pot possession would not only recognize these continuing barriers, it would be the fair thing to do.
A streamlined, merit-based and free-pardon process should be reserved for more serious marijuana crimes, such as trafficking or cultivation.
Canada’s pardon system is broken. Some of the regressive legislative changes introduced by the Harper government — laws that were opposed by the Liberals — have been found unconstitutional. Now in power, the Liberals have taken no action.
The public overwhelmingly supports reforms to the pardon system. But the Liberals have taken no action.
So, you can excuse the lack of blind trust when it comes to the vague plans on pot pardons.
Promises are cheap. Promises in the months before an election are cheaper. And given that there will be a federal election in 2019, any bill introduced now has little chance of becoming law any time soon.
Marijuana might be sort of legal today, but there are half-a-million Canadians who continue to be impacted by the ghosts of the historic, wrongheaded and discriminatory criminalization of cannabis.
Promises and half-measures are simply not enough to correct historic wrongs.
As the Liberals were so fond of saying in 2015, it’s time for some bold action and real change.