When Canada became the first wealthy country to legalize cannabis in 2018, many hailed it as a watershed moment in the reform of the country’s criminal justice system — and an opportunity to clear the records of more than 500,000 Canadians previously convicted of cannabis-related offenses. As member of parliament (MP) Guy Caron told Radio 1 Newsbeat, “We now need to go back and be able to remove the stain that is on the record” of those citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are low income, people of color, or both.
After months of foot-dragging, it appears that Canada’s cannabis amnesty program is finally about to take effect. Earlier this week, the Liberal leaders of Canada’s federal government unveiled a plan to provide fast, free pardons for those convicted of cannabis possession under the country’s old laws.
As reported in the Global News, Bill C-93 (the piece of legislation that authorized the pardons) stops short of the immediate and automatic amnesty proposed earlier this year by lawmakers from the New Democratic Party. Instead of having their records cleared by a sweeping governmental decree, applicants will need to undergo a somewhat complex process that includes getting their fingerprints taken, securing copies of their local police records, and submitting a number of forms via mail to the country’s national Parole Board in Ottawa. However, they will not be required to pay the $641 CAD fee previously charged for pardon applications, nor will they need to wait a number of years before applying.
As Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters at a recent press conference, “The pardon, to my understanding, is almost instantaneous.”
However, some experts — like Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto — warn that while the new bill is “a step in the right direction,” it still doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“The practical consequence is that [criminal convictions for cannabis possession that have been pardoned] still could be accessed by some levels of government or law enforcement agencies. They may appear in court. And most importantly, they could be reversed. The most practical thing is that it’s still there,” he told the Global News.
Despite the shortcomings of Canada’s cannabis amnesty program, it could still provide a model for American states considering cannabis legalization — and perhaps eventually, the federal government as well — as they seek to update their criminal justice systems for a post-prohibition world.
As reported by Pew, a number of states in the U.S. with legal cannabis — such as California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Oregon — have already adopted similar measures of their own. There, people convicted of certain cannabis-related offenses can apply to have their records sealed (which removes them from most public databases) or expunged (which deletes them entirely). Other states, such as Massachusetts, are also mulling bills that would provide sweeping amnesty to those with low-level cannabis offenses on their criminal records.
“We call it reparative justice: repairing the harms caused by the war on drugs,” as Eunisses Hernandez, a criminal justice advocate with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Pew.
However, the most promising signs of reform might be found in Illinois, which recently became the latest state to legalize recreational cannabis. Under the state’s new laws, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker has touted as “the most equity-centric approach in the nation,” up to 750,000 people charged with cannabis-related offenses could be eligible to have their criminal records expunged, removing the stigma of their past convictions and giving them a chance at a fresh start.
According to statistics from the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 1.4 million Americans were arrested on cannabis possession charges in 2017 alone — with almost 47 percent of them being Black or Latino (who, combined, comprise only 31.5 percent of the country’s population). If the U.S. can take Canada’s cannabis amnesty model and improve upon it, this could be a major step forward in healing the wounds of the decades’-long war on drugs … and rectifying the massive racial injustices in the country’s penal system.