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3 years after legalization, number of cannabis charges pardoned is low: expert

While many, including business owners and producers, have benefited from the federal government's legalization of marijuana three years ago, programs to expunge certain past cannabis convictions have a long way to go, says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.

'Very few Canadians actually knew that the system existed,' said researcher Akwasi Owusu-Bempah

The federal government launched a program two years ago that provides free pardons for those charged with simple possession of cannabis. Since then, fewer than 500 people have had their records expunged. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

While many, including business owners and producers, have benefited from the federal government's legalization of marijuana three years ago, programs to expunge certain past cannabis convictions have a long way to go, says one expert.

The federal government said that an estimated 10,000 Canadians would be eligible for its cannabis amnesty program, offering free pardons to those convicted of simple possession of cannabis, when it launched two years ago, but Akwasi Owusu-Bempah says only around 500 individuals have been pardoned so far.

Numbers provided to CBC News indicate 780 applications for pardons were submitted to the Parole Board of Canada between Aug. 1, 2019 and Oct. 1, 2021.

"Very few Canadians actually knew that the system existed; that this record suspension system had been introduced," said Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and director of research for the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. 

"Even for those that do know it exists, the parameters are rather narrow."

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and director of research for the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Owusu-Bempah said that police will often charge individuals with multiple offences beyond simple possession, and those charged may choose to avoid the process of seeking amnesty. He adds that time restrictions on when individuals can apply, as well as documentation requirements, create additional barriers for those seeking pardons.

"So although the system is in place, it is not one that's easily navigated by individuals who are eligible, even for those that do know that it exists."

With the third anniversary of the Cannabis Act's passing, the federal government is set to undertake a statutory review of the law. 

Public Safety Canada declined to provide a statement on the number of pardons given to date.

Cannabis convictions affect Black, Indigenous communities

For Vivianne Wilson, owner of the retailer GreenPort Cannabis in Toronto, the government's decision to legalize marijuana is one to be applauded. 

But three years on, she believes that too little action has been taken on the issue of pardons.

Wilson says that Black and Indigenous people have been disproportionately harmed by the prohibition of marijuana, and have faced charges as a result.

That's a sentiment echoed by Owusu-Bempah who said those criminal records are keeping many individuals out of the workforce — including from jobs in the now-legal cannabis industry.

Vivianne Wilson is founder and president of GreenPort Cannabis in Toronto. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

A report released Oct. 14 by the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation and the University of Toronto, and co-authored by Owusu-Bempah, found that 84 per cent of cannabis industry executives are white. 

Only two per cent of industry leaders are Indigenous, and one per cent are Black.

Wilson, who bills herself as the first woman of colour to own a cannabis company in Canada, wants that to change. 

As the three-year review of the Cannabis Act approaches, she hopes to see governments commit to reconciliation for those affected by the criminalization of the drug.

"[That] could be financial — hopefully financial from the tax dollars that they're gaining from the industry. That's something that we definitely need to see to address some of the past injustices that [have] been done," Wilson said.

Some U.S. states that have legalized marijuana have created social equity programs, creating entry points to the industry for communities disproportionately affected by the drug's criminalization. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Gov't can offer financial help for those with past convictions: Owusu-Bempah

Beyond clearing the criminal records of those charged with cannabis-related offences, Owusu-Bempah agrees that the government can redirect a portion of revenues to communities who have been historically targeted by prohibition laws.

What's more, they could create avenues for those same individuals to enter the cannabis industry.

State governments in Illinois and New York have taken similar approaches in their laws decriminalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Social equity programs in those states have been set up to allow those negatively impacted by criminalization of marijuana to benefit from its legalization.

It's an acknowledgement, said Owusu-Bempah, that "we've spent decades enforcing unjust laws that have had a disproportionately negative impact on largely Black and brown people in poor neighbourhoods and the resources that could have been spent on things like schools, community centres [and] libraries."


Written by Jason Vermes with files from Matt Meuse and Abby Plener.

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