Canada is pardoning more drug convicts
Canada granted a record number of pardons last year for people convicted of drug-related crimes — but experts say barriers are still preventing countless others from clearing their records.
There’s a growing chorus of people with cannabis possession offences calling on the government to issue a blanket pardon
According to numbers obtained by VICE News, the Parole Board of Canada granted 1,741 pardons from 2016 to 2017 for people convicted of at least one drug offence, this could including possession and trafficking. It’s the highest number in five years and a significant jump from the 1,038 pardons granted from 2015 to 2016, despite the fact that the number of applications for all pardons dropped by nearly 1,000 last year. Pardons are officially referred to as “record suspensions”, which are not expunged but sealed from public view.
There were 11,563 pardon applications for overall crimes last year compared to 12,384 the year before.
And while the federal parole board — the government body with exclusive authority over granting record suspensions — does not break down its pardons statistics by type of drug, there’s a growing chorus of people with cannabis possession offences calling on the government to issue a blanket pardon, especially as their offence will no longer be a crime in about a year under the Liberals’ proposed cannabis legalization bill. There’s also renewed criticism of Canada’s prohibitive pardons process that requires years of waiting and a hefty fee of over $600.
Federal public safety minister Ralph Goodale has said the government has no plans to pardon Canadians who’ve been convicted of simple pot possession. If the Liberals’ weed legalization is approved by Parliament, adults in Canada will be allowed to possess fewer than 30 grams of cannabis.
“If something becomes legal, then why should people still be burdened with that record? And still dealing with the consequences associated with that in terms of stigma and trouble with career opportunities,” said Samantha McAleese, a criminologist at Carleton University. “And the current record suspension processes causes a lot of grief for people who are then going to put up a lot of money to have those charges cleared.” She pointed to other countries such as the U.K. and Australia, which automatically seal criminal records after a certain number of years depending on the offence.
Last year, the C.D. Howe Institute, a centrist think tank, also recommended that the Liberals consider pardoning people of pot possession convictions, and drop any outstanding charges, to help free up financial resources that will be needed to enforce legalization.
“Our government will be smart on crime.”
The previous Conservative government overhauled the pardons system in 2012, quadrupling the application fee from $150 to $631 and increasing the amount of time convicts have to wait after their sentence to apply for a pardon. For example, people convicted with less serious crimes such as cannabis possession have to wait five years to apply — up from three. And those convicted of more serious crimes have to wait a decade to apply for a pardon, up from five years under the previous rules.
On Wednesday, a B.C. judge ruled that these changes were unconstitutional. The case centered around a 42-year-old Vancouver father of three who was convicted for drugs and weapons crimes in 2004, and had to put off applying for a record suspension until 2019 because of the new rules, five years after he would have been eligible under the previous system.
Spokesperson for the public safety minister Scott Bardsley told VICE News in an email that the department is “leading a review of the pardons system”, the results of which will be made public in the coming months.
“Our government will be smart on crime,” Bardsley said. “Inaccessible pardons can be a significant barrier to good employment as many positions require criminal record checks.”