The Case for Cannabis Amnesty

The legalization of cannabis is a turning point for Canada. Legalization sends a positive message to Canadians and the rest of the world that it’s time to move away from the ineffective and harmful war on drugs and adopt a pragmatic approach to the regulation of illicit substances that focuses on harm reduction rather than relying on antiquated stereotypes about cannabis consumers.

In spite of this great leap forward, many Canadians will remain left behind. Decades of cannabis prohibition have saddled hundreds of thousands of Canadians with criminal convictions for non-violent, minor cannabis offences. Indeed, one of the driving factors for cannabis legalization is to reduce the burden that the prosecution of these offences has had on our criminal justice system. These numbers are staggering:

  • In the past 15 years, Canadian police agencies reported more than 800,000 cannabis possession “incidents” to Statistics Canada.
  • In just four years, between 2008/2009 and 2011/2012, cannabis possession accounted for approximately 59,000 adult and 14,000 youth cases in Canadian courts and 25,000 adults and almost 6,000 youth convictions.
  • An estimated 500,000 Canadians currently have a criminal record for cannabis possession.

Moreover, decades of unfair and unequal enforcement of cannabis laws has meant that marginalized and racialized Canadians have been disproportionately burdened by cannabis convictions. Despite similar rates of use across racial groups, racialized Canadians are disproportionately arrested for simple cannabis possession. The following is a description of racial disparities in cannabis possession arrests across Canadian cities for the year 2015.

  • In Vancouver Indigenous people were nearly seven times more likely than White people to be arrested for cannabis possession.
  • In Calgary Indigenous and Black people roughly three times more likely to be arrested than White people.
  • In Regina Indigenous and Black people were arrested seven and five times more than often than White people.
  • In Ottawa, Indigenous and Black people were four and five times more likely to be arrested than White, respectively.
  • In Halifax Black people were over four times more likely to be arrested for than White people.

These convictions prevent people from travelling to the United States, volunteering, and finding meaningful employment. Under the Cannabis Act, past convictions may also prevent many Canadians from participating in the country’s growing legal cannabis economy. In short, many people’s lives will continue to be torn apart because of these minor offences.

No Canadian should be burdened with a criminal record for a minor, non-harmful act that will no longer be a crime.  A poll conducted in May 2017 by Nanos Research and the Globe and Mail indicated that 62% of Canadians either support or somewhat support pardons for people with criminal records for marijuana possession.

Cannabis legalization is only the beginning of the story. We need to help the over half million Canadians who have been affected by cannabis prohibition to get their lives back on track. If the government is moving forward, Canadians deserve a right to as well.