Canada begins issuing pardons for cannabis possession convictions

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada has begun issuing pardons for people who were convicted of simple possession of cannabis and do not have other criminal records, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: A woman waves flags on the day Canada legalizes recreational marijuana at Trinity Bellwoods Park, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio/File Photo

Canada became the first developed nation to legalize the use of recreational marijuana last October. The pardon system for cannabis possession convictions fulfills a promise made by Trudeau during the 2015 election campaign.

Upwards of 250,000 Canadians may have such a conviction, Liberal Justice Minister David Lametti said, though he added it was hard to get an exact figure because of differences in reporting systems between provinces and police jurisdictions.

Many Canadians, particularly black and indigenous Canadians, are saddled with the “lingering consequences” of a system in which cannabis was illegal, Lametti said at a news conference in Montreal.

Under the previous system, Canadians with a cannabis possession conviction had to wait five years before applying for a pardon and pay the parole board C$631 ($478), Lametti said. Those requirements have been removed under the new system.

“People can finally shed the burden and stigma of that criminal record and move forward positively with their lives,” he said.

The pardon system is a step in the right direction, but there could still be problems and unforeseen costs, said Scott Bernstein, director of policy for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

People who go through the pardon process “are removed from some databases,” Bernstein said, “but there are a lot of other databases and records kept out there.”

This could create problems for people who were previously convicted of cannabis possession when traveling to the U.S., he said.

However, Lametti said Canadians who are eligible for the pardon will be able to cross the border into the United States without issue, because the record of the conviction will be removed from the Canadian database.

Scott Bardsley, manager of communications for the Ministry of Border Safety, said in an interview that “there may be costs associated with compiling an application that are outside the Parole Board’s control.”

For instance, Bardsley said, local courts and police services generally charge a fee to take fingerprints, do a criminal record check, and provide conviction information, all things that may be associated with compiling an application to request a pardon.

“Generally the people who end up on the wrong side of criminal justice around drug issues are not people from wealthy and elite communities; it’s people who already are marginalized,” Bernstein said.

The pardon process will be open to those whose only criminal record is a cannabis possession conviction. It will be available online starting on Thursday.

“We’re hoping by expediting the process to make the number of people who have access to the pardon reach into the thousands,” Lametti said.

Reporting by Moira Warburton; editing by Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis