Editorial: Make it easier to get pardons

The federal government should step up its efforts to rationalize the laws surrounding the use and distribution of marijuana, but a blanket pardon for those convicted of possessing the drug shouldn’t be the first order of business.

However, the process for individuals to apply for such pardons should be made simpler and less costly.

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Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have been convicted of possession of marijuana, leaving them with criminal records that can hinder employment opportunities and prevent them from visiting other countries. It’s a heavy price to pay for what is, in many cases, a minor offence.

Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd is among those advocating that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau use its legislative powers to pardon Canadians with simple-possession convictions.

“I don’t think that should stay as a criminal record,” said Boyd, “given that we now are approaching an era in which it is going to be seen as analogous to alcohol or tobacco, and taxed and regulated in a somewhat similar manner.”

We are approaching that era, but we’re not there yet. Laws need to be changed, but we haven’t worked out how they should change. It would be premature to automatically wipe the slate clean for those with pot-possession records.

Victoria lawyer Robert Mulligan said that while expunging records of people found guilty of possessing personal amounts of marijuana is an important piece of the puzzle, it won’t be easy or simple.

“There’s a lot to this; it’s a challenge, and to expect the government to do it all so quickly is probably not realistic,” Mulligan said.

He said there is no single national database that stores drug-possession records. There are repositories for this information at all three levels of government and policing and beyond, he said. Expunging all those records would be an administrative challenge.

And if Canada pardons a criminal record for possession, it doesn’t mean it would be recognized by other countries, he said. Despite pardons, people who had been convicted of possession in the past might still be denied entry into the U.S., for example.

Mulligan also noted that not all marijuana-possession convictions are specified under “marijuana;” some might instead be lumped in as “possession of a narcotic,” which could include a long list of drugs. Also, trafficking charges for marijuana might have been reduced to possession convictions.

We believe people who have been convicted of possessing personal amounts of marijuana should have the opportunity to have those records expunged. Circumstances differ with each person, and those circumstances should be considered. But let’s not overlook the fact that they knowingly broke the law, not as a gesture of civil disobedience, but simply because they wanted to use marijuana.

Expunging records should not be the onerous or costly process that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government created when it overhauled the pardon system in 2012. A person must have completed all sentences and paid all penalties, then wait five years before applying to have a record expunged. The cost is $631, and the applicant is responsible for additional fees for things such as fingerprinting, obtaining a copy of the record, court documents and local police checks.

While those requirements are appropriate for robbery or assault convictions, they are out of proportion to the offence of simple possession of marijuana.

The federal government should move ahead on new laws regarding marijuana, but it shouldn’t be hasty — poorly crafted laws could bring unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, the process related to expunging pot-possession records could be made simpler and more fair, and at a nominal fee. But it should be done on a case-by-case basis.

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