As Canada prepares to legalize marijuana this summer, politicians are facing growing calls to grant a blanket amnesty for people convicted under the existing drug laws – many of whom belong to marginalized groups.
Since the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was elected in 2015 on a manifesto promise to legalize cannabis, more than 15,000 people have been charged over marijuana-related offences – joining close to 500,000 Canadians with marijuana convictions on their criminal record.
Activists argue that without an amnesty, hundreds of thousands of people will continue to feel the effects of outdated laws whose enforcement has had a disproportionate impact on racial minorities and the poor.
Last week, the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty launched a petition asking the government to consider pardons for possession charges. The group hopes to gain at least 5,000 signatures by the end of May.
Annamaria Enenajor, a Toronto-based lawyer and director of the campaign, said the sprawling legislation tabled by the government makes no mention of existing marijuana convictions, which can have long-lasting effects.
A possession charge can show up in job applications and can affect approval for government housing, volunteer opportunities or scholarships, said Enenajor.
“The criminalization of cannabis is so drastic and disproportionate to people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that Canada’s current statutes on drug possession are not equitably applied. “Drug laws are enforced by the police – and we know that the police are not immune from racism and discrimination,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah of the University of Toronto.
Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives, said: “White and black communities use cannabis and other drugs at similar rates, but black communities have been disproportionately targeted for police stops, cannabis arrests and incarceration.”
The discrimination manifests in pre-trial detention and sentencing disparities: in Canada, the black community is incarcerated at a rate three times higher than the general population, she said.
Trudeau has himself admitted to smoking marijuana as a sitting MP, and last year admitted that family resources and connections helped his younger brother, Michel, avoid a marijuana possession charge.
In January, the public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, said the government was “weighing all the legal implications” of a pardon.
But there remains a significant logistical hurdle in implementing any blanket amnesty. The database system used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police does not always indicate the drug seized during an arrest.
In order to expunge a felony or misdemeanor record, officers would have to manually scour the database to determine the specifics of the drug offence and then vacate the conviction if it fell under the new laws.
Canadians currently have the option of petitioning the government to have the charges dropped, but must pay a fee of $600 and wait five years – a system which critics argue continues to penalize marginalized groups.
Advocates for an amnesty in Canada point to swift moves by state governments in the United States following legalization as a useful model.
In the weeks following the legalization of cannabis in California, San Francisco’s district attorney expunged thousands of felony convictions related to cannabis possession. Cities such as Seattle and San Diego have also moved to clear away records of marijuana possession.
Owusu-Bempah said that in addition to blanket pardons, a handful of US cities have directed the increased tax revenues to communities hardest hit by previous laws – a model he believes could also benefit communities in Canada.
Currently, people with criminal records are unable to work in the burgeoning cannabis industry, a policy that hits heavily policed communities especially hard, said Maynard and Owusu-Bempah.
“It’s one thing to expunge someone’s criminal record,” said Owusu-Bempah. “It’s much more useful to try and mend the very real problems caused by drug prohibition.”