Op Ed: Why Canada should seal cannabis possession records

With cannabis legalization on the horizon, questions continue to be raised about those with convicted or pending possession charges on their record.  

The Canadian government hasn’t been clear about whether or not they will pardon pot convictions. They have stated that laws will continue to be enforced until legalization finally comes into effect, but how long those criminal records stay in effect is anyone’s guess. 

When legalization was proposed as an election promise, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the harms of a criminal record. In fact, he later noted that his brother Michel faced cannabis charges shortly before his death in an avalanche. However, his father, the former prime minister, was able to use his connections to hire the best lawyer and make sure there was no criminal record.  

The elder Trudeau likely knew a criminal record can follow people for life. It can impact college enrollment, job applications, business licences and volunteering.   

Record Suspension system 

When asked about the recourse for those with records, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has pointed to the Record Suspension system. However, this system is very onerous. You must wait five years before you can apply with a summary (the Canadian version of misdemeanor) conviction and then pay $631. In the meantime, the application is very complex. About 30 per cent are rejected outright each year due to missing or incomplete information or missing payment.    

Those who are unemployed or underemployed have a very hard time accessing this application due to the fees and the time commitment. Applicants must gather several documents from many different agencies and put together a compelling application. It is especially difficult for young people who are just starting to discover their place in society. Often, they move a lot and find it challenging to juggle a complex application with their other responsibilities such as work and school. Many people simply give up.  

Working in the cannabis industry with a possession record

The federal government recently completed a consultation period on whether or not people with criminal records should be permitted to work in the industry. While the government has proposed banning them from high-level positions such as CEO or board member, they have recognized that there could be a role at the employee level for growers, technicians, sales clerks and other positions. The recent consultation was designed to determine what jobs could be opened to people with records.  

It’s recognized that people who have worked in the illegal industry have knowledge and experience that would benefit employers. As well, not allowing people with possession records to participate in the industry could prolong the existence of the black market, which the government wants to eradicate. 

Sealing non-violent minor possessions would simplify matters enormously. It would no longer be up to employers to try to assess whether the record meets the government’s standards and for which positions. It is generally prohibited by human rights law to hold a sealed record against a person.  

Expungement process 

Currently, the government has not put anything in writing, but Trudeau has hinted at a process for expunging records to be determined after legalization is in place. Trudeau has also promised reform of the pardon system, which became much more onerous and expensive under the previous government. However, no legislation has been introduced. Goodale also seemed to pivot on his earlier statements and has now also stated that the government may look at a form of expungement after July 1. Meanwhile, businesses are currently hiring to meet the expected growth.  

By introducing legislation to legalize personal possession of recreational cannabis, the government has acknowledged that Canada’s drug laws are not working. One of the major ways that they aren’t working is by causing people to be saddled with records that seriously impede their ability to participate fully in society.  

The government should act swiftly to expunge cannabis possession records to ensure that citizens can live to their full potential. Let’s hope that come July, all Canadians can celebrate a fresh start and leave the war on cannabis in the past.    


Photo courtesy of High Times