Recreational cannabis became legal October 17, 2018, but the one thing the government neglected to factor in before legalization was how to deal with past criminal convictions for something which was no longer a crime. The Liberal government’s failure to act left tens of thousands of Canadians in limbo, until now.
For the past eight months, there has been a huge grey area for an estimated 250,000 individuals with convictions for simple possession of cannabis in Canada. Activists, lawyers, government officials, and ex-offenders have been speaking out about the “fair” way to deal with a previous low-level cannabis conviction. From a Record Suspension, (formerly known as a Canadian Pardon) to expungement, the thought-provoking debate has been on.
Cannabis Amnesty took to their campaign mobile with a cross-Canada movement calling for the government to wipe clean minor cannabis convictions by expungement as opposed to a pardon. Why? Well, the one major misconception about a record suspension (nee, pardon) is that it means a criminal record is erased, this is simply not true.
A record suspension (Canadian pardon) implies a person has been forgiven for their crime and gives an individual a chance to start fresh, unfortunately, pardons have limitations. For example, with a record suspension, your record is essentially removed from the CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) database, but it isn’t erased. Within Canada, the record isn’t accessible when a company or person does a criminal background check allowing the individual in question to find better employment and housing opportunities, but a suspended record is still visible internationally. For instance, a record suspension still does not allow or enable the person to travel into the United States and for some this can be a pretty big deal—it means no family vacations and no traveling for work south-of-the-border.
Expungement is an entirely different story. Expungement implies an acknowledgment that the activity ought not to have been an offense to begin with. Its very essence is about erasing a criminal record for good. Pot activists and many learned people have lobbied the government to expunge those with low-level cannabis convictions. The argument is that an ongoing criminal record for something which is no longer a crime is inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Several related bills were introduced into Parliament such as Bill C-415 to establish a procedure for expungement and Bill C-93 to provide a no-cost, expedited record suspension for simple cannabis possession. June 20, 2019, eight months after legalization, Bill C-93 was passed in Parliament and now we will have hundreds of thousands of people applying for pardons.
Eligibility for a pardon, however, still does not mean it is easy to acquire. Applying for a pardon is no easy feat. In fact, one of my client’s, AllCleared has built its business on helping people maneuver the entire arduous process. It has been while working with AllCleared that I learned the important differences between a record being pardoned and being expunged.
I do ask myself as you should, has the government done its citizens a justice or injustice when it comes to dealing with past, low-level cannabis convictions. Is taxpayers’ money being spent effectively in the way this is being handled? Look, for instance, at the California example. There they have moved to automatically expunge the records of those convicted of qualifying cannabis crimes without requiring the individual or state process of handling thousands of individual files. California estimates roughly 1-million people will be entitled to and granted expungement and all by the push of a button. Imagine the cost benefits of that process? I presume it would be much less of a financial burden than individual pardons for each and every of the 250,000 + Canadian citizens and don’t forget the government usually charges $631 for each record suspension. That’s a lot of money that needs to come from somewhere.
Bill C-93 is touted as the no-cost, expedited record suspension for low-level cannabis possession convictions—this means the government has offered to expedite the processing of these applications. If the government does not allocate sufficient additional resources to support the processing of these pardons this will undoubtedly impact the processing time of those who are attempting to access the pardon system for other types of past convictions.
Ultimately it seems automatic expungement makes a lot more sense than obligating individuals and bureaucracy to employ a costly and timely application process. I can’t help the feeling that the government was unwilling to put themselves out on a limb so close to an election, but at the same time is trying desperately to save face considering they were elected on a platform of legalization but have seemingly botched its execution without any cohesive strategy behind it. Certainly, this is a fair question to consider when deciding how to cast your vote in the next federal election. It will certainly be top-of-mind when I enter the ballot box.