For countless lives impacted by Canada and America’s drug wars, legalization means little if they don’t receive some form of restorative justice.
In Canada, lawmakers continue to say that automatic expungement is impossible. In the U.S., federal prohibition continues to limit progress.
In 2020, Annamaria Enenajor, director of the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty, called Canada’s record suspension program an “abject failure.” Looking at the number of records processed, it is hard to argue Enenajor’s assessment. Meanwhile, advocates say expungement was the wiser route despite lawmakers stating otherwise.
First-year expectations projected that 10,000 Canadians could be eligible for what was once touted as a simple, straightforward process. Instead, only 257 were accepted by the Parole Board of Canada (PBC). As well, instead of the thousands expected to apply, only 458 submitted their applications.
In 2020, PBC spokesman Jon Schofield told CBC that the pandemic caused processing delays. A government official told the publication that the matter was made more complicated by other criminal convictions on a person’s record. Under the law, a person is not eligible for a record suspension if their record has other criminal convictions.
Making matters more difficult is the categorization of cannabis crimes in Canada. Unlike the United States, Canada does not have a specific crime for possessing pot. Instead, a person’s record may have a charge for possession of controlled substance, a schedule 2 conviction. In 2019, MP Karen McCrimmon said this circumstance made amnesty a popular choice. However, lawmakers could not select the option due to the uncertainty of cannabis charges from another schedule 2 substance.
She called amnesty “a practical impossibility” at the time. The record suspension bill would pass in early June 2019. The circumstances leave many unable to address their record as hoped. Without mentioning cannabis, offenders’ records can be lost in the system and leave them unable to complete the paperwork process.
A record suspension is not enough to some advocates. “We’re not even talking about expungements here,” said Jamie Shaw, director of the British Columbia Independent Cannabis Association. Instead, Shaw noted that suspensions leave offences on a person’s record while removing the criminal conviction portion. Unlike expungement, a person must serve their sentence and then wait five years before qualifying.
In 2019, NDP MP Murray Rankin’s expungement proposal was rejected. The NDP responded saying that the Liberal party selected a flawed system despite acknowledging the disproportionate effect the drug war has on Indigenous and Black Canadians.
“Instead of eliminating criminal records for something that is now perfectly legal, the Liberals have proposed a record suspension program that requires a complicated application process and doesn’t erase the records,” an NDP press release stated.
Caryma Sa’d is a Toronto-based advocate and executive director for NORML Canada. Sa’d believes that expungement isn’t an impossible feat. Rather, it requires a significant degree of legislative effort, including acknowledging that the criminalization of cannabis was wrong. “It’s a matter of priorities,” said Sa’d. But, she added, “The way it has unfolded up to this point would indicate that we’re not really prioritizing past convictions for cannabis.”
In 2020, Senator Kim Pate introduced legislation for an automatic record suspension for cannabis convictions. The legislation, Bill S-214, made it to a second chamber reading during the session. The bill was reintroduced as Bill S-208 this year. In April, reports stated that Senate discussions on the matter should begin again soon.
States, Towns And Counties Take Incremental Steps As America Prohibits Pot
The US continues to see people arrested for cannabis on the state and federal levels. According to the Americans for Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its 2020 report, arrest rates vary significantly by state. South Dakota topped the list with over 707 arrests per 100,000 people. It also had the highest growth rate of arrests, increasing 176% between 2010 and 2020. The ACLU also notes that variances also occur by county, with local laws affecting enforcement.
While the U.S. has more precise cannabis charges than Canada, tracking how many are in prison for the plant remains difficult. In 2021, Drug Policy Facts editor Doug McVay told CelebStoner that tracking cannabis offences typically comes from comparing old stats from the Justice Department. Using 2004 and 2019 data, McVay noted that over 22,000 people are in state prison and over 9,500 others are in federal prison for cannabis. The Last Prisoner Project pushed back, telling the publication that they believe the numbers are larger than McVay reported.