The prohibition of cannabis and other drugs in Canada began in 1908. Cannabis was legalized in Canada for personal use in 2018. In 110 years of anti-cannabis legislation, the government launched a campaign to stigmatize cannabis users with propaganda and false claims. Cannabis users and those involved in the production or sales of marijuana were subject to prosecution and faced fines, jail time, and permanent stains upon their criminal records. After many years of the prohibitive method being used to ban the use of cannabis in Canada, research increasingly showed that the punitive approach to drug policy was an expensive and ineffective method of addressing illicit drug use among citizens. However, despite enacting cannabis legalization in Canada in 2018, many citizens still face the consequences of having criminal records for non-violent cannabis crimes. Until the federal government works to repeal criminal records for those convicted of cannabis-only crimes on a large scale, Canada can not fully claim true legalization.
As mentioned, evidence indicates that the “war on drugs” approach to addressing illicit substances has failed to achieve its stated objectives of eliminating or reducing the production, consumption, and trafficking of illegal drugs (Tinasti, 2019). The prosecution of drug users, traffickers, and manufacturers helped to line the pockets of gang-affiliated dealers by allowing the supply of cannabis to be controlled solely by those in the black market. As soon as one illegal dealer was arrested, there were numerous other underground soldiers ready to take over the vacant position in the drug trade. Meanwhile, citizens who were caught in possession of cannabis, growing cannabis, or selling cannabis were subject to arrest, prison sentences and faced lengthy criminal records.
Despite mounting evidence against the effectiveness of the “war on drugs”, punitive measures were consistently used against drug users in Canada, as the government introduced harsher laws and stiffer penalties for criminals convicted of drug crimes. This included the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences for those with drug convictions, brought in by the Harper government. In 2004, before the Harper government came to office, 24 federal offences were subject to mandatory minimum sentences. By 2015, the number of offences that carried mandatory minimums had tripled to 72 (Wherry, 2021). Mandatory minimum sentences are detrimental in that they increase the strain on the court system, while also criminalizing people unnecessarily. Rather than allowing for treatment or rehabilitation, mandatory minimum sentences ensure jail time for certain offenders, regardless of the circumstances of their crimes. This is especially true for marginalized populations in Canada, such as racialized citizens and those in extreme poverty.
Cannabis arrests, charges, and convictions have had a substantial impact on racialized and impoverished communities. Initially designed to target high-level drug dealers and manufacturers, cannabis law was often used instead to justify the apprehension of individual drug users for crimes of procuring and possessing marijuana. While no race-related data for these drug arrests has been officially released, experts agree that by examining the statistics regarding racialized people imprisoned in Canada, one can safely assume that the impact of the war on drugs on these communities is far-reaching and severe. In 2010-2011, Black inmates accounted for 9% of the federal prison population although Black Canadians only comprised 2.5% of the overall population. Similarly, Indigenous people in Canada are over-represented in Canadian prisons. Indigenous people represent 3.8% of the population in Canada but account for 21.5% of the incarcerated public (Khenti, 2014). Systemic racism in the justice system can not be ignored when examining these statistics, beginning on city streets with the practice of racial profiling by police as well as inconsistent sentencing for minority citizens when compared to Caucasian offenders in Canadian courtrooms. A Toronto Star analysis found that Black Canadians with no criminal record were three times more likely to be arrested than white people with no record despite not having a higher usage rate (AllCleared, 2017). Racialized citizens are granted parole less often than their white counterparts when brought up on the same charges, and once released, face double stigmatization by both being a person of colour and having a criminal record.
A criminal record in Canada impedes the opportunities that a person has to elevate their social status or advance in certain areas of their life. A person may not be able to find adequate employment or could be denied admission to a post-secondary program that they have applied to because of their record. People with criminal records may struggle to get approved for mortgages or loans and may be rejected as potential candidates for rental housing. Some insurance companies will refuse to insure someone with an unsatisfactory record, and many travel opportunities become unavailable as certain countries will not allow visitors who have been convicted. Most volunteer work requires a criminal record check, especially in sectors involved with vulnerable people such as children or the elderly, and will not allow the involvement of those found to have a record. In addition, a person with a criminal record who breaks the law is likely to receive harsher punishments than a person would if they had not previously been charged and convicted. Without a pardon, a criminal charge does not ever disappear from a person’s record, and can effectively lock a person into a life of poverty, forcing them to engage in more criminal activity to provide their basic needs. To move forward from a cannabis conviction, a person would have to apply for a pardon of their conviction.
The Federal government implemented a special pardoning application system for those convicted of cannabis possession charges on August 1, 2019. This effort was predicted to apply to over 10,000 eligible Canadians with criminal records for cannabis possession and was meant to offer a fast track way to achieve a pardon, cutting out the typical five to ten-year wait-time seen in applying for pardons for other crimes.
As of March 1, 2021, under four hundred pardons have been issued under the special cannabis pardon program and two hundred and fifty pardons have been denied (Cain, CTV News, 2021). Some experts suggest that the number of approved pardons is less than initially expected because people in the final years of cannabis prohibition were not being charged with simple possession offences as often leading up to the legalization of cannabis in Canada. While some supporters of the “war on drugs” suggest that cannabis crimes had been prosecuted less in recent years as police focused on arrests involving harder drug use and traffickers, but the statistics tell a different story. In 2016, police reported that cannabis-related arrests made up 58% of drug-related offences in Canada and that 76% of these arrests were for simple possession (Canada Department of Justice, 2016). Others suggest that cannabis crimes were more often prosecuted under non-specific drug charges. Rather than being charged with cannabis possession specifically, people would simply be charged with “possession of narcotics”. This type of non-specific drug possession charge would not be eligible to receive a pardon under the special pardoning program.
To make the cannabis pardon system more accessible, the Canadian government has waived the $644 application fee for citizens seeking pardons for simple cannabis possession, however despite this effort, the process to apply remains a lengthy one. Applicants can be asked to provide official fingerprints, as well as the original court files from their case, something that can be costly and time-consuming to procure if those records are held in another part of the country. Another barrier for those seeking cannabis pardons is that citizens are only eligible to apply if they have had one charge for cannabis possession, people with multiple cannabis charges can not. It is important to note that often possession charges would be issued in tandem with other charges such as driving while intoxicated, assault, or trafficking (Harris, CBC News, 2019).
Rather than providing amnesty to those individuals charged with non-violent cannabis crimes, this pardon process has been criticized as being performative and ineffective. While the government claims to offer a quicker, less expensive way to apply for a pardon, the eligibility criteria make the process inaccessible for a great number of people with criminal records for cannabis possession.
A pardon doesn’t clear away the evidence of a conviction, but rather separates the conviction from any other items on a person’s record. It is still visible in some situations and it may still act as a barrier for someone trying to live an honest life after arrest. While debating the cannabis pardoning process in the House of Commons, the NDP pushed for expungements of cannabis criminals rather than pardons, a move that would see cannabis convictions erased from a person’s record entirely. The federal Liberals countered by saying that expungements are reserved for cases in which a law is unconstitutional (Harris, CBC News, 2019).
I believe that the continued criminalization of non-violent cannabis offenders in an age of legalization is unconstitutional. Further, Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) believes that “people should have the fundamental human right to change their consciousness” (Gillespie, 2020). If cannabis crimes are no longer illegal in Canada, to continue to punish cannabis-only criminals is unjust and should be addressed immediately by opening this pardon process up to offenders with multiple cannabis charges, offenders with low-level, non-violent cannabis trafficking charges, and people charged with growing cannabis for personal use.
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