Got a simple pot conviction? There's a new pardon system

The federal government has unveiled a free and quicker way for Canadians to apply for pardons for simple cannabis possession.

Pardon or not, the U.S. could still deny Canadians entry when crossing the border

A man smokes a novelty-sized joint in Vancouver in 2017. Canadians can now apply for pardons for simple cannabis possession through the Parole Board of Canada's website. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Canadians now have a free and quicker way to apply for pardons for simple cannabis possession.

Justice Minister David Lametti unveiled the new online applications system in Montreal on Thursday. It aims to remove barriers to employment, housing, travel and volunteering opportunities for people who were convicted of simple possession before recreational cannabis use was made legal. 

Lametti said the announcement will help minorities who have been "disproportionately affected by cannabis laws." 

Lametti, who appeared on behalf of the public safety minister, said Canadians can now apply for pardons through the Parole Board of Canada's website. An online application is available and an email and toll-free number will help answer users' questions.

The new system eliminates the $631 fee and the lengthy wait times, the minister said.

A news release from the federal government said applicants are eligible even if they have outstanding fines or surcharges from their conviction, so long as they have completed the rest of their sentence. Non-Canadian citizens and residents are also eligible as long as the conviction was in Canada.

The Parole Board of Canada is also working with police, courts, community groups and criminal justice professionals to generate awareness.

Tens of thousands of applications expected

The government estimates upwards of 250,000 Canadians have pot convictions, and the government suspects applications will be in the tens of thousands.

Bill C-93, which became law in July, waived the fee and the five-to-10-year wait period for applicants, but until today it was unclear how Canadians with cannabis convictions could apply for pardons.

Experts have said a surge of applications is unlikely because most Canadians with convictions have their possession charges bundled with other charges such as impaired driving or assault. They add that most people who wanted pardons already received theirs. Also, police did not tend to pursue simple pot possession charges in the waning days of illegality, to avoid clogging the courts.

The Cannabis Act legalized and regulated the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana for recreational use as of Oct. 17, 2018. A pardon or record suspension is different from an expungement — pardons do not erase the fact you were convicted of a crime, but it keeps the record separate from other criminal records.

Pardons don't go far enough, lawyer says

Simple possession refers to Canadians who possessed 30 grams of cannabis or less. Before legalization, people convicted of simple possession could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Jack Lloyd, a cannabis lawyer and advocate in Toronto, called Thursday's announcement a laudable but small step that doesn't address the "historical injustices" of simple possession. Lloyd said if the government wanted to help minorities, it should acknowledge in law it was wrong to criminalize cannabis possession and apologize publicly. 

Jack Lloyd is a cannabis lawyer and advocate based in Toronto. (John Lesavage/ CBC)

"All of the stigma associated with cannabis prohibition continues," Lloyd said. "If their goal was to help [minorities], an expungement is how you do that. Not this tiny step."

The federal NDP said it was "disappointed" in today's announcement and said it will "keep fighting" for the expungement of criminal records.

Can Canadians with pardons travel to the U.S?

Public Safety Canada says on its website record suspensions are only released under "exceptional circumstances" and are typically withheld during routine background checks. That includes at U.S border crossings, Lametti said.

The minister said U.S. border guards are now unable to see cannabis convictions for Canadians who've received a criminal pardon. But U.S. authorities who've obtained a Canadian's criminal record and stored it on their database from a prior interaction could still see that information, he said.

Justice Minister David Lametti speaks Thursday in Montreal where he announced the start of a no-cost, expedited pardon for people convicted of simple possession of cannabis. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Ultimately, the pardon doesn't guarantee Canadians with pot convictions can travel to the U.S and other countries where cannabis possession is still illegal.

"Any sovereign country has the right to control who goes into their country," Lametti said. "That is in a sense beyond our control."

Pardoned Canadians stand a better chance, Lloyd said, but border guards can still deny entry. 

His advice? Never lie to law enforcement officers about previous pot convictions. Instead, exercise the right to silence, withdraw your entry application and request to speak with a lawyer.


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca

With files from The Canadian Press, Olivia Stefanovich and Kathleen Harris