Wednesday December 19, 2018
By Andrew Ward
When Canada legalized adult use cannabis it became the world's largest legal marijuana marketplace. While the nation celebrated its newly granted legal access to cannabis, its government didn't stop at legalization. In addition to expanding cannabis access for adults, the nation is righting wrongs as well. As legalization came, so did the announcement that Canada would begin expediting the pardon process for thousands of citizens who have been convicted of cannabis possession offenses.
The measure by the government could be life-changing for scores of Canadians. A 2014 study revealed that this measure could impact more than 500,000 Canadians. However, some note that limitations make this step towards progress incomplete. Much like the U.S., Canada’s past treatment of marginalized people has led many to ask if more can, and will, be done.
Canada Pardons Satisfy Some, Raise Concerns for Others
Details surrounding the expedited process provided clearer pathways for those convicted while leaving room for improvement according to others. Notably, the process for cannabis possession pardons will not adhere to standard procedures. Those applying for a pardon will not have to wait the standard five or ten year wait, depending on the offense, to waive their record. Additionally, the $631 cost to apply will be waived as well. Some advocates are happy with the announced plans, including the director of research at Cannabis Amnesty, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, who told CBC News "I think today's a historic day. Canada is doing something monumental." The move may be monumental in Owusu-Bempah’s eyes. However, others see problems with the current plan.
For some, the plan falls short due to its lack of lack of legislation in Parliament. They feel the debate around the financial cost of waiving pardon fees, pardoning timelines and other unaddressed topics is still unresolved.
As such, these uncertain points could delay the implementation of any measures, though that is just speculation by some experts at this time. In other cases, the concern stems from pardoning itself. Some allege that the federal government should have gone further. These advocates call for an expungement rather than a pardon. In doing so, records would not just be suspended, but rather entirely removed from a person's history – giving them a proper clean slate.
If achieved, supporters believe that this would benefit indigenous and black citizens who faced disproportionate arrests through the country's history and up until today. As VICE noted in 2017, overrepresentation of these groups continues in arrest records despite ethnic groups using cannabis at similar rates across the board – like the United States. The move also has precedent as the government recently offered to expunge criminal records of LGBTQ people who faced similar unjust targeting and arrests over dubious charges.
Additionally, advocates for expungement point out that the application process for pardoning can adversely affect more minorities, people with mental health issues and the poor. These groups, proponents argue, are disadvantaged during the pardoning process which includes obtaining court records and paying all fines before the process can begin. So, while the developments up north have been well received, the debate around if it is enough should continue on.
Canada’s Drug Arrests on the Decline – Cannabis is Largest Offender
Arrest statistics show that Canada’s cannabis and drug crimes are on a healthy decline. In 2016, 55,000 Canadians were arrested for cannabis, which included charges for possession, trafficking, production and distribution. Other prominent drug charges stemmed from cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, PCP, LSD and ecstasy. Meanwhile, in 2016, the United States arrested 587,000 people for simple cannabis possession.
While cannabis arrest rates in the U.S. remained the same, Canada continued to see a decline. The country had a 16% decline in cannabis arrests from the year prior.
Some outlying provinces saw increases, including Newfoundland and Labrador with a 28% increase and Prince Edward Island with a 10% jump. During this same period as well, police-reported drug crimes for offenders aged 12 to 17 dropped 14%, as did youth cannabis possession which declined 15%.
Data from 2017 confirmed that Canada's cannabis-related charges were on the decline for a sixth straight year. This trend marked a twenty year low for the nation – with only 13,800 people charged for possession during 2017. Sources to the CBC explained that police are more focused on the opioid epidemic than cannabis. The shift in focus over the years has led to a spike in other drug related charges, namely opioid possession and trafficking.
In all, Canada’s efforts to pardon cannabis-related possessions is certainly admirable. However, it is clear that the discussion is far from over. Certain citizens, advocates and experts alike believe that more can be done. They assert that the marginalized, whether by race or economic status, still do not receive a fair opportunity to be granted a pardon. Instead, by expunging these records, the government could send a clear message to its citizens that they are righting the wrongs just as they have done for others in recent memory.
While Canada’s efforts should be lauded, this situation once again brings into question if all people are receiving fair treatment. Could more be done to level the playing field? We’ll have to wait for answers when the government brings its plans to Parliament.
What are your thoughts on Canada’s plan for cannabis pardons? Comment below!