Hull-Aylmer MP pledges to help clear pot offenders' records

Liberal MP Greg Fergus is vowing to help some of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians with convictions for marijuana possession get their criminal records cleared — but they'll have to wait until after legalization.

Greg Fergus says possession convictions disproportionately affect black, Indigenous Canadians

Greg Fergus is pledging to seek remedies for some of the 500,000 Canadians who have a criminal record because of marijuana possession convictions. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A west Quebec MP is pledging to help some of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians with marijuana convictions get their criminal records cleared — but they'll have to wait until after legalization.

Greg Fergus, the Liberal MP for Hull-Aylmer, said he'll be seeking remedies for some of the 500,000 Canadians who he said have a criminal record related to simple possession of marijuana.

"I will be one of the first people at the door saying … let's start getting busy and sharpening our pencils to try to figure out how we can best deal with this," Fergus said. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he would not consider issuing amnesties or creating an expedited pardon program until after cannabis is legalized in July 2018.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has also said officials are examining "all the legal implications for possible pardons, or record suspensions, for criminal records for cannabis."

Charges, convictions dropping

There has been a precipitous drop in the number of charges for simple possession of marijuana in Ottawa, from 341 charges in 2012 to 216 in 2016 — the most recent year data is available from Statistics Canada.

Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt said that anecdotally he's seen a decline in the number of people charged with marijuana possession over the last year.

Spratt also said he's been getting phone calls from clients anxious to clear their criminal records in light of the new law — and he's frustrated with how long it's taking the federal government to consider expediting the pardon process.

Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt said he's seen fewer middle class Canadians charged with marijuana possession — but he continues to defend marginalized individuals on the same charges. (CBC)

"There seems to be no interest from this government to work on the pardon issue, despite the promise of a review," Spratt said. 

In 2010, Parliament passed legislation that doubled the waiting period for people to apply for a record suspension — more commonly referred to as a pardon. Spratt successfully had Ontario courts strike down the extension as unconstitutional, and a similar case in B.C. came to the same conclusion.

Still, someone charged today would still have to wait until at least 2023 before being able to apply for a pardon on a simple possession charge.

Spratt said that while he's seen fewer middle class Canadians charged with marijuana possession, he continues to defend marginalized individuals on the same charges.

Black, Indigenous Canadians

Fergus said that — whether the solution is a pardon or some kind of amnesty —  he hopes the discussion considers the growing evidence that a disproportionate number of people convicted of marijuana possession come from black and Indigenous communities.

Research suggesting higher conviction rates for small amounts of marijuana possession, Fergus said, "leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that there's something systemic at work where more black folks are charged, remanded and convicted."

He said he's not advocating for different laws for different Canadians, however.

"I just want people to understand how we got here," Fergus said.

Fergus also said the decision to exclude people with criminal records from participating in the soon-to-be-legal industry needs to be more nuanced.

"It sounds like it's a good idea," he said. 

"But if there is systemic racism which caused these people to have criminal records, it seems we're only perpetuating the discrimination that would [end with them] not having the same economic opportunities. So it's not an easy situation."