Murray Rankin: Expunging marijuana convictions gives people a fair chance

Last Thursday, I tabled my private member’s bill to expunge records for possession of cannabis for recreational use, an activity that will be perfectly legal in less than a week.

Currently, those with a criminal record can have their conviction pardoned, but only after five to 10 years and paying more than $630 just to apply. Even after being pardoned, an individual is still required to answer “yes” when asked if he or she has ever been convicted of a criminal offence.

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An expungement, on the other hand, which is what my bill offers, is the justice system acknowledging that the offence never legally happened. That means individuals could check “no” when asked if he or she has ever been convicted of a criminal offence. And that’s a big deal.

In Toronto, for example, 15 per cent of individuals on social welfare cited “need for a record suspension” as a key barrier to employment. Convictions for possession of cannabis for recreational use can also create barriers for renting an apartment and seeking to volunteer. Under my bill, there would be no wait to apply for expungement and it would be free.

I believe that Canadians should not be punished for what will soon be a completely legal activity. Some people might not agree. Some might ask: “Why clear records for people who knowingly broke the law?”

Here’s why: Pot convictions have not been applied under the law equally. There are an estimated 500,000 Canadians with a criminal record for possession of cannabis for recreational use, and statistics show that across the country, a widely disproportionate number of these Canadians are racialized and marginalized.

In Halifax, black people are arrested for simple drug possession at five times the rate of white people. In Vancouver, 17 per cent of those arrested for cannabis possession are Indigenous men or women, yet fewer than three per cent of Vancouver’s population reports having “Aboriginal identity.”

Moreover, wealthier Canadians have been able to hire innovative lawyers to avoid a criminal record, leaving marginalized Canadians to suffer. The purpose of this bill is to reduce systematic barriers of success for marginalized and racialized individuals.

Some argue that it has not been uncommon for people caught dealing or trafficking marijuana to accept an offer to plead guilty to possession, and that this fact alone should mean that records for simple pot possession ought not to be expunged. However, courts generally distinguish between three levels of seriousness of trafficking: social sharing, petty retail operations or full-time commercial operations. Factors such as the number of transactions and whether other drugs were being dealt are also considered.

It’s highly unlikely that a full-time commercial operator selling a variety of illicit drugs would be charged for simple possession. We must continue to oppose the trafficking of cannabis and other illegal drugs and the funding of gangs through illegal drug sales.

My bill isn’t about giving Canadians a “free ride.” It’s about giving them a fair chance. It’s about righting past wrongs and helping thousands of Canadians get on with their lives.

Murray Rankin is the NDP member of Parliament for Victoria.

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