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Streamlined pardon process for marijuana possession convictions on the way

Last Updated Oct 17, 2018 at 2:39 pm EST

Ottawa wants to make it free and fast for Canadians to obtain criminal pardons for simple pot possession, but Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale made it clear Wednesday the government does not support the push for conviction records to be destroyed outright.

Goodale said legislation is coming this fall to waive the fee and waiting period for Canadians seeking a pardon for possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana – an offence punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

But the minister explained the government does not believe it would be appropriate to expunge records by wiping them off the books completely – even though recreational cannabis use is now legal.

“We have utilized the tool of expungement in cases where there is a profound historical injustice that needed to be corrected,” Goodale told a news conference.

The federal government recently brought forward legislation to allow people to apply to have their criminal convictions for consensual sexual activity between same-sex partners erased from the public record. The measure was part of a broader apology to the LGBTQ community.

Cannabis laws, while outdated, were not “of the same nature,” Goodale said, noting expungement is reserved for cases of past injustice involving charter rights violations.

The government recognizes that while a pardon doesn’t erase a record, having one can make it easier to get a job, travel and generally contribute to society.

A pardon, or record suspension, means the criminal record in question is kept strictly separate from other records and that it may be disclosed only in certain circumstances.

Expungement entails government acknowledgment that those convicted were subject to a historical injustice and their offence was an act that should have never been a crime or, if it occurred today, would likely be inconsistent with the charter.

Currently, individuals are eligible to apply to the Parole Board of Canada for a record suspension for simple pot possession five years after completion of their sentence.

But the waiting period and the $631 cost of applying for a suspension have proven difficult for some people saddled with records.

Under the new plan, people could apply immediately if they have completed their sentence, Goodale said Wednesday, noting legislation will be required to implement the new measures.

“Now that the laws on cannabis have changed, individuals who previously acquired criminal records for simple possession of cannabis should be allowed to shed the stigma and the burden of that record.”

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin tabled a private member’s bill earlier this month calling for the government to expunge records for possession of cannabis for recreational use. Rankin said Wednesday he is pleased the Liberals accepted the thrust of his idea but added he is “very disappointed” that Goodale ruled out expungement of cannabis convictions.

“He claims there is no historical injustice,” Rankin said in a statement.

“I completely disagree. The disproportionate impacts felt by Indigenous people and racialized communities represent a deep historical injustice and one that should be addressed immediately.”

Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair cautioned Wednesday legalization is only the first step towards a strictly regulated cannabis regime that achieves the government’s twin objectives of getting pot out of the hands of kids and eliminating the thriving black market.

“The new system will do a better job of protecting our kids and that’s our first and most important priority,” he said.

“By giving adults a regulated legal alternative we believe we can make our communities safer.”