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Canada: Ottawa should go further on pardons for pot possession

Ottawa Star

Monday 04 Mar 2019

It’s hard to imagine why a government that was forward-thinking enough to legalize the use of cannabis last October is now refusing to erase the records of Canadians convicted of simple pot possession.

Instead, legislation that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced last week will simply make it much easier for those convicted of cannabis possession to obtain a pardon.

It’s true that the proposed law, Bill C-93, allows for “no-cost, expedited pardons” that will eliminate the current $631 fee and the normal 5- to 10-year waiting period.

But this is still disappointing news for the estimated 500,000 Canadians who have criminal pot possession convictions on the books.

There’s a vast difference between a pardon and the erasing — known as an expungement — of records, a difference that could drastically affect their lives.

A pardon, for example, does not erase a past offence. It merely sets the conviction aside and keeps any record of it out of the main national police database. But anyone asked on a form whether they have been convicted of a criminal offence must still answer “yes.”

On the other hand, when a record is expunged it’s as if the conviction never happened.

As NDP MP Murray Rankin, who introduced a private member’s bill last year that would expunge criminal records for pot possession, said: “Canadians deserve freedom, not forgiveness.”

Indeed, the government’s rationale to pardon past offenders rather than expunge their records does not hold water.

Goodale argues that expungement is valid only in cases where there is a profound historical injustice that needs to be corrected, and says that test does not apply to cannabis possession.

For example, he pointed to Bill C-66, legislation passed last year, which automatically expunged the records of men who were criminally convicted when homosexual acts were a crime.

“The laws with respect to cannabis . . . are not of the same nature as the historic, social injustice that was imposed in relation to the LGBTQ2 community,” he said last October.

Still, tell that to those who have been convicted of simple pot possession, especially Indigenous, Black and poor people who, Goodale acknowledges, were more likely than white people to be targeted by police and caught carrying. As Tiffany Gooch wrote in the Star last year: “This is a race issue.”

Which begs the question: Is Goodale arguing, then, that people who were targeted because of the colour of their skin have not faced an historic, social injustice and been disadvantaged by how cannabis convictions were meted out?

These convictions, after all, have had profoundly negative effects on their ability to get housing, obtain a job, volunteer or enter another country.

That would seem to us to constitute an historic, social injustice — not just for minorities but for everyone convicted under the prohibition.

It’s true that it would be a challenge to mine the RCMP database in a way that effectively isolates and expunges charges relating strictly to cannabis possession, as opposed to other drug charges.

But that’s no reason for the government to shy away from the task.

It bears repeating that by legalizing cannabis the government admitted that nearly a century of prohibition of the drug in this country was at the very least wrong-headed, if not a grave injustice perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of people.

So it would seem that expungement, rather than a simple pardon, is required to undo the harms they suffered. Half-measures that will leave the convicted vulnerable to ongoing potential negative consequences are unacceptable.

It’s not too late for the Trudeau government to rethink this issue and choose expungement over pardons. It should do so.




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