MPs studying the government's legal cannabis legislation were urged Thursday to consider "amnesty provisions" for individuals with prior cannabis offences to allow access to the legal market.

"Many of these individuals would embrace the opportunity to operate legally and they would comply with regulations," Trina Fraser told the House of Commons health committee. Fraser is a partner in the law firm Brazeau Seller LLP. 

"If we fail to create an inclusive cannabis industry the black market will thrive and if it thrives cannabis will continue to be easily accessible to minors. The public health and safety objective of restricting access to unregulated cannabis products will be compromised and we will continue to place an unnecessary burden on the criminal justice system," said Fraser. 

Trina Fraser, Partner at Brazeau Seller LLP

Trina Fraser, partner at law firm Brazeau Seller LLP, tells the House of Commons health committee that 'amnesty provisions' are needed for those with prior cannabis-related criminal offences to allow access to the legal market framework. (CBC)

In its current form, Bill C-45 would allow the minister to refuse the granting of a licence or permit should an applicant have contravened the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in the past 10 years.

Fraser said that provision excludes anyone who has been convicted of producing, trafficking or possessing cannabis in the last decade. She said yet-to-be established regulations could further broaden grounds for exclusion.

"The stated objectives of the bill include the reduction of the illicit market, and it attempts to do so by imposing criminal sanctions on those operating outside the legal framework, but this in and of itself will not work. We know this because it hasn't worked. Those who are excluded will continue to operate outside of the law," Fraser told the committee.

Amnesty provisions in the U.S.

Fraser suggested MPs look to the U.S. for direction on the matter.

In Washington, a state that legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, a prior criminal conviction doesn't necessarily disqualify an applicant.

Applicants who have two prior misdemeanour convictions for possession of marijuana within the previous three years don't have those offences counted against them in the decision to award a licence. Applicants, however, must report these offences when applying. 

Pot falls from sky

In Washington, a state that legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, a prior criminal conviction doesn't necessarily disqualify an applicant. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

"What we wanted to do was take those people that had been involved in the business to some degree in the past or they had had a marijuana offence and wanted to get into the system in a regulated, in-the-light situation," said Brian Smith, spokesperson for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Smith said Washington conducts a criminal background check on everyone who applies, and the board utilizes a discretionary point system to evaluate how past offences count against an applicant's eligibility.

Colorado, which also legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, does not have any amnesty provisions. However, the state's former pot czar Andrew Freedman said there is a considerable criminal justice component arguing the lack of such provisions is wrong.

Although Fraser argued Canada needs a more nuanced approach to the issue of licensing, she did outline instances where an applicant could be excluded, including for offences involving young persons, guns, violence or the trafficking of controlled substances other than cannabis. She also said applicants with established connections to organized crime could be excluded.

Call for border crossing agreement with U.S.

Thursday afternoon, NDP health critic Don Davies called on the Liberals to begin talks with the U.S. for an agreement ensuring free travel over the border following the legalization of recreational cannabis next summer.

"No Canadian should be turned away from the border for participating in activities which are legal in this country," Davies said in a statement.

In recent years, reports have surfaced of Canadian citizens being denied entry to the U.S. for simply admitting to consuming marijuana in the past.

"Witnesses testifying on this bill have been unanimous that without an agreement with the U.S., Canadians will be put in a terrible position of having to either lie to border officials or be denied entry," said Davies. "The negative consequences of this will span from ruining family vacations to a serious barrier for trade and business over the border."

Week of hearings

MPs on the House of Commons health committee are also hearing from health-care officials and Indigenous leaders as the committee conducts Day 4 of hearings on the government's cannabis legislation.

The committee is holding five full days of hearings this week.

On Wednesday, MPs were urged by a senior public health representative to push forward with legal cannabis despite calls to slow down.

"You have also heard calls that we are not ready for legalization. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of time as Canadians are already consuming cannabis at record levels," Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, told the House of Commons health committee.

Culbert's message came one day after senior police representatives told the committee that they will not be ready to enforce new laws by next summer and are asking the government for more time, echoing a message from several provinces in recent months.

Despite the concerns, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government was sticking to its timetable to legalize cannabis by July 1, 2018.