It's time Ottawa moved to expunge criminal records for pot smokers
If police brass who vigorously enforced cannabis laws can reinvent themselves as pot promoters then it’s high time to give Canadians with possession records their own second chance.
The legalization of cannabis next week is a welcome step forward for Canada, and an overdue acknowledgement that criminalizing pot-smokers was a costly and dangerous mistake. But the federal government’s work is not yet complete.
In 2016 alone — the year before the Trudeau government introduced its groundbreaking legislation — nearly 18,000 people were charged with simple pot possession. Those convicted that year, and every other year going back decades (an estimated 500,000 Canadians in all) have criminal records hanging over their heads.
To have so many lives limited by something that won’t even be illegal after Oct. 17 makes no sense.
The government has indicated it is at least open to the idea of amnesty for pot possession convictions, but that it wasn’t willing to discuss the issue until after legalization. Fair enough. But that comes next Wednesday so it’s time to figure out how to take the necessary next step.
The New Democrats have already started that ball rolling. Last week, NDP Justice Critic Murray Rankin tabled a private member’s bill to allow anyone charged with personal possession of cannabis to apply to the parole board to have their charges expunged without waiting years or paying the $631 it normally costs just to apply.
Since private member’s bills rarely pass, Rankin says he’d be happy if the government would take his bill and “run with it.”
His bill is a decent start. Better still would be an automatic blanket amnesty. People should not be forced to apply to the already overburdened parole board to have their records expunged.
A criminal record for smoking pot can have an incredibly damaging impact on people’s lives, limiting their ability to get a job, volunteer at their child’s school, rent an apartment or travel abroad. And what’s even more troubling is that we know the pot laws were never applied equally.
Black and Indigenous people and those living in poverty were disproportionately targeted in the misguided war on cannabis. Black people with no history of criminal convictions were three times as likely to be arrested by Toronto police for pot possession than their white counterparts, a Star investigation revealed last year.
And it’s no better across the country. In Halifax, Black people were arrested at five times the rate as whites, and in Vancouver Indigenous people account for less than 3 per cent of city’s population but 17 per cent of the arrests for pot possession, Rankin said, in explaining why expunging records is so important.
Indeed, former Toronto police chief Bill Blair — now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s point person on legalization — called the impact on minority communities “one of the great injustices in this country.” He’s right and it’s one the government must fix.
Even Julian Fantino, another former Toronto police chief and once an outspoken critic of legalization, now heads up a medical marijuana company, calling it “a healthy choice.”
It’s clear that the people who upheld the law have moved on. Now the government needs bring in an amnesty so those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law can move on too.