David Moscrop is a Canadian political commentator.
The march of moral progress is slow. Typically, it is routinely punctuated by halts and detours and backward treks. So, when the Canadian government legalized cannabis last month — setting Oct. 17 as the day the Victorian criminalization of the recreational use of the substance will end — it was no surprise that it failed to address the matter of what to do with those who possess criminal records for minor possession convictions.
Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have said they will consider pardons, known in Canada as “record suspensions,” after the law comes into effect. They are essentially asking those struggling with criminal records to stew in their own anxiety and stigma a little longer, preserving the issue for the Liberal Party as a horse it can ride toward the fall 2019 election.
Forgiveness should have been part of the legislative package from Day One. But since it is impossible to go back in time to correct this wrong, the best the government can do is promise pardons immediately and move on to getting the thing done.
Not everyone agrees. If you are the sort who is prone to reaching for the life preserver when the water gets choppy, you might be inclined to cry, “But what of law and order? Those convicted broke the law.”
Nevermind that as a personal and public health risk, alcohol, prescription drugs and cheeseburgers are causing far greater damage. The paternalist prohibition on the use of cannabis has always reflected a state more concerned with empty moralizing (“Won’t someone please think of the children?”) led by timorous politicians who opted to tread a well-worn path rather than cut a new and righteous one of their own. As a result, Canadians have had their lives destroyed because they happened to be unlucky enough to be caught by an officer who felt like enforcing the law that day. Not only was the law foolish; it was inconsistently applied, which means it was also unjust.
Arrests, charges and convictions for minor cannabis possession have been applied arbitrarily and leniently to white and wealthy Canadians. The same cannot be said for poor and black and indigenous peoples, who have been disproportionately affected by prohibitionist drug laws and who still carry with them the criminal records — and difficulty finding work — to prove it.
In an investigative report this spring, Vice News and University of Toronto criminologists Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Alex Luscombe studied six Canadian cities (Regina, Halifax, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa) and found that the application of the law was vigorously prejudiced.
For instance, in Ottawa, the nation’s sleepy capital, black residents made up 22 percent of the city’s cannabis arrests in 2015 despite representing 6 percent of its population. In Vancouver, a pot-friendly town, indigenous Vancouverites accounted for 17 percent of charges despite being just 2.5 percent of the population. The numbers are similar across the country.
Mass pardons for small-time cannabis convictions would be the first and easiest step toward correcting some of the injustices rooted in Canada’s historically regressive drug policies. They would clear the names of offenders, thereby helping them find their way back into the workforce, easing their travel across borders, and sparing them the cost of the process (more than $600 in Canadian currency — about $455 in U.S. money — just to apply for grace) and the long wait to begin it (five years after the sentence is complete).
The way that legalization is proceeding is Kafkaesque. As the cannabis market opens wide in Canada, among the first through the gate to stake their claim and chase their fortune have been former politicians, lawyers, officers of the law and others in positions of authority. That is especially perverse considering that so many are stuck waiting for pardons and left out of the market.
The just and decent and practical thing for Canada to do is to get on with pardons for those convicted of minor cannabis possession. Spare the moralizing. Spare the hand-wringing. Spare the suburban community pandering. Spare the temporizing that conveniently leads up to and perhaps into the next election. Get the job done, and get it done now so that those who have unjustly borne the unreasonable burden of these convictions and criminal records can move on with their lives while the country does the same.