'Was it fair to punish them?' Feds promise faster pot pardons, but some want convictions expunged

Canadians with simple pot possession convictions might soon be able to get a pardon more quickly, but some think the charges should be expunged instead.

Pardons forgive a past offence, while expungements forget

The Liberal government announced Wednesday that it intends to waive fees and cut the waiting time on applications for pardons for simple cannabis possession convictions. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Canadians with simple pot possession convictions might soon be able to get a pardon more quickly, but some think the charges should be expunged instead. 

On Wednesday, the same day recreational marijuana became legal in Canada, Regina MP and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced the Liberal government's intention to waive the fee and cut the waiting period for those pardons.

The fee for record suspensions is normally $631. The waiting period to apply is usually five years for a summary offence or 10 years for an indictable offence.

Goodale said the move will break down barriers to jobs, education and housing for those with pot convictions, and that the government will draft the legislation on the expedited pot pardons before Christmas.

"The penalty itself was not particularly severe, but the consequence of carrying around a criminal record could have very disproportionate consequences, and that's why we're proceeding with the pardon," he said.

The stigma of having a record

Regina defence lawyer Bob Hrycan said he expects "a lot" of people in Saskatchewan to apply for pot possession pardons if it becomes cheaper and easier to do so.

He's defended many clients in court who faced charges for possession of marijuana.

"It's slightly sad when you consider the number of individuals who've tried to defend themselves on charges of marijuana possession or who've entered guilty pleas to charges of marijuana possession, and carried the stigma of that," Hrycan said.

"Those convictions have likely prevented them from getting jobs, from travelling, from doing any number of things. The question should be, was it fair to punish them as harshly as they were punished, in hindsight?"

Defense lawyer Bob Hrycan said he thinks expungement would be appropriate for people with simple pot possession convictions. (CBC News)

Hrycan said he would be in favour of the convictions being expunged rather than simply pardoned.

A record suspension does not erase the fact that you were convicted of a crime, but keeps the record separate and apart from other criminal records.

An expungement would erase the convictions rather than just forgiving them, and make the conviction invisible to employers and border agents.

"For expungement, the government recognizes that those whose record of conviction constitutes a historical injustice should not be viewed as 'former offenders,'" says the government of Canada's website.

"Their conviction was for an act that should never have been a crime and had the conviction occurred today, it would likely be inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. "

Earlier this year, the federal government tabled the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act, Bill C-66, as part of an apology to LGBT Canadians. It gives the Parole Board of Canada jurisdiction to order the expungement of convictions for past Criminal Code offences that include gross indecency, buggery and anal intercourse.

NDP wants records expunged

The federal NDP has called for the government to expunge criminal records for simple pot position.

Goodale said the government did not adopt that approach, because it is for cases where there has been a "profound historical injustice," such as when a charter right was violated.

Saskatchewan NDP MLA Nicole Sarauer, who is also a lawyer by trade, said she wrote a letter to federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould calling for pardons earlier this year and asked Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan to sign it along with her. She said he refused.

She said her party was happy to hear about the plan for pardons, but also thinks expungement would be better.

Nicole Sarauer, from the Saskatchewan NDP, said her party was happy to hear about the plan for pardons, but also thinks expungement would be better. (CBC News)

It offers those who have been convicted a clean slate.

"It's very important because, largely, these charges impacted the most vulnerable people in our province and it's a very significant barrier to employment," she said. "We'd like to see it go a step further. Expungement would be ideal."

Sarauer said she hopes that administrative breach charges which happened as a result of possession charges are pardoned or expunged as well.   

'It was against the law': Sask. Party

Morgan spoke about the pardons Wednesday afternoon at the Saskatchewan Legislature. He acknowledged that it's a federal issue, but said convictions for marijuana possession shouldn't necessarily be forgotten.

"At the time those offences took place, it was against the law," he said.

Morgan said he wants to see each case considered individually, rather than a wholesale pardon.

"We don't know, sitting here on a blanket basis, whether these are people who have had one, two, three, four or five convictions, so it's a worthwhile exercise to go through the process," he said.

With files from Kathleen Harris.