The federal government is inviting as many as 600,000 Canadians who have
criminal records for possessing small amounts of marijuana to apply for
federal pardons.

Justice officials offered the enticement yesterday as their political
bosses introduced legislation to decriminalize possession of less than 15
grams of marijuana, so that people would be ticketed rather than slapped
with a criminal record.

But if the Liberal bill becomes law, the government has no plans to grant
a general amnesty, as recommended last year by a Senate committee that
said Canada should legalize cannabis possession.

Rather, people convicted of possession can send $50 and an application to
the National Parole Board for their names to be cleared.

"It doesn't erase the fact that you've been convicted of a criminal
offence, but it seals the record," explained board spokesman John
Vandoremalen.

"It basically gives you privileges, it allows you to apply for jobs and
things like that where the hurdles normally appear."

The chances of being pardoned are excellent: only one to two per cent of
applications are denied. As a result, the government has granted 277,000
pardons since 1970 and only three per cent have been revoked for reasons
like lying on the application or having another brush with the law.

Although there has been nothing up until now to prevent people convicted
of marijuana possession from applying, not many people know about the
program, said Mr. Vandoremalen.

It can take up to five years to receive a pardon after a person applies,
and a request cannot be made until three years after a person has
completed their sentence or has otherwise fulfilled their penalty.

It takes even longer for people convicted of more serious crimes in which
the maximum penalty exceeds a $2,000 fine and six months in jail.

Mr. Vandoremalen said that Canada's human rights laws do not allow
employers to discriminate against people who have received pardons.
However, they don't guarantee entry into other countries.

Pardoned people, for instance, must make subsequent applications with U.S.
authorities for travel to the United States, a prospect that could be
problematic given the Bush administration's warnings about cracking down
on people with drug convictions.

The Canadian Centre for Drug Abuse estimates that as many as 600,000
Canadians have criminal records for marijuana possession, many from the
1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Vandoremalen said he does not know how many pardons already have been
granted for marijuana possession, since the government does not record a
breakdown.

"I imagine there is a significant number," he said.



Author: Janice Tibbetts
Source: Ottawa Citizen
Contact: letters@thecitizen.southam.ca
Website: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/
Pubdate: Wednesday, May 28, 2003