Ottawa looking at amnesty for pot possession convictions: Goodale

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is looking at the possibility of amnesty for people with pot possession convictions once marijuana is legalized, according to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

“We’re weighing all of the legal implications to make sure that we fully understand all the dimensions of this and, when we’re in a position to make an announcement, we will do so,” Goodale told reporters during the Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont. Friday.

Goodale wouldn’t give a timeframe for any decision on amnesty, nor would he say what legal implications are being considered. “I think the responsible thing is to do the analysis, see where the unfairnesses are and take the appropriate steps to correct those problems,” he said. “But you need to do it in an orderly way.”

Asked about the issue during a press conference Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government “will of course reflect on fairness” after marijuana is legalized, which he has promised will happen by July 2018.

“I think certainly we know that the current legislation is hurting Canadians and criminalizing Canadians who it perhaps shouldn’t be, but that is an engagement we will take once we have a legalized and controlled regime in place, not before,” Trudeau told reporters. 

In 2016 alone, 17,733 people were charged with possession of cannabis, down 3,600 from the year before, according to Statistics Canada. More than half of the 95,400 drug offences that year were cannabis-related, and the majority of those were possession offences. Goodale’s office was unable to provide an estimate of the total number of Canadians with criminal records for marijuana possession.

Goodale’s comments marked a change from last April, when he said a blanket pardon was “not an item that’s on the agenda at the moment.” At the time, he noted that a formal process already exists to have criminal records set aside.

But that same month, at a forum hosted by VICE Canada, Trudeau hinted at the possibility of amnesty once pot becomes legal. “We’ll take steps to look at what we can do for those folks who have criminal records for something that would no longer be criminal,” he said.

On Friday, Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has pushed for amnesty, said it’s important that the government “address the unfairness of prohibition.”

“All I know is this is the right thing to do. The current state of affairs is completely unjust,” he said in an interview, pointing out that amnesty was part of the original Liberal Party resolution on marijuana legalization.

Erskine-Smith has also spoken out in favour of decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs. But his party has steadfastly refused to consider decriminalizing pot possession ahead of legalization in July.

“This is a major change in the law. It takes time to get there in an orderly fashion,” Goodale told reporters on Friday. “And in the meantime, the existing law remains and people need to obey that law.”

Erskine-Smith said it’s too late to argue about decriminalization now. “That ship sailed, and so I think the next best thing is — where can we move the needle on addressing the previous injustices of prohibition?”

NDP MP Don Davies said Ottawa could consider issuing a blanket pardon for possession offences that would no longer be illegal under the Liberals’ pot legislation. Otherwise, he said, the government could decide to waive the five-year wait and the roughly $600 fee that Canadians currently face if they want to have their criminal record suspended. But to refuse amnesty, he said, would be “illogical and harmful.”

However, Davies noted that a criminal record for pot possession, even after a pardon, would likely still be visible to U.S. border guards. He urged Goodale to “at least try” to negotiate with the U.S. administration to come up with a solution for Canadians travelling south of the border, where marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

There have been other indications that Ottawa is open to some form of amnesty for those with cannabis offences. Draft regulations released in November show that the government is considering allowing those with charges of small-scale pot possession or cultivation to obtain the security clearance necessary to occupy a senior role with a licensed marijuana company.

With files from Brian Platt and the Canadian Press

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