The Liberal government launched a new, faster pardon process for those with criminal convictions for cannabis possession on Thursday.
The government says it expects thousands to apply for an expedited process that waives the waiting period and $631 fee required for most criminal record suspensions.
"By applying for a no-fee, no-wait-time pardon for cannabis possession, people can finally shed the burden and stigma of that criminal record, and move forward positively with their lives," said Justice Minister David Lametti at a press conference in Montreal.
The special documents required to apply for a cannabis record suspension are now available online. The multi-step process does not require a lawyer, but it's only available to applicants who have completed any criminal sentences for simple cannabis possession, with the exception of fines and victim surcharges. Canadians convicted of other cannabis-related offences, like production or possession for the purpose of trafficking, are not eligible for expedited pardons, although they can still apply for criminal-record suspensions through the normal process.
Applicants for the expedited pardons must first obtain their criminal record or other proof of conviction, and get a local police record check for anywhere they've lived in the past five years. If those records don't clearly show that the applicant was only convicted of simple cannabis possession, and that the only sentence was a fine, a victim surcharge, or both, applicants must provide additional court information. Current or past Canadian Armed Forces members applying for a pardon must also provide a formal military conduct record.
The process culminates in mailing those official documents and a two-page application form to the Parole Board of Canada, which is offering a toll-free information line to help applicants navigate the process at (800) 874-2652.
"The pardon, to my understanding, is almost instantaneous," said Lametti on Thursday.
"There are no criteria other than simple possession and having completed the sentence. So it will take a few weeks to get it done, whereas before it would take a few months."
Asked Thursday why his government isn't unilaterally expunging the criminal records of Canadians convicted of cannabis possession, an approach proposed in a failed private member's bill from NDP MP Murray Rankin, Lametti said the government was "reserving the expungement process for situations that would have been covered by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," like an earlier Liberal bill that laid the groundwork for expunging the criminal records of Canadians convicted of consensual gay sex.
"So in this case we're moving with a process that's efficient, that takes into account also the fact that police agencies and the court system across Canada have different record-keeping procedures, and an application-based pardon process is one that will most quickly and most efficiently allow people to clear their record," he said.
"We think that there may be upwards of 250,000 people who have, in some way shape or form, some kind of cannabis possession conviction," Lametti added. "We're hoping by expediting this process to make the number of people who have access to the pardon reach into the thousands."
It's still not clear exactly what impact the pardons might have for Canadians with previous cannabis possession convictions who want to enter the United States, where federal border agents have been known to deny entry to foreigners who admit to having used drugs in the past, or who have a drug-related arrest on their record.
"Any sovereign country has the right to control who goes into their country, so that is in a sense beyond our control," said Lametti.
"What is within our control, and what is important here, is that the criminal record will no longer show up in any sort of verification on a database."
But U.S. border authorities keep their own databases, Lametti added, and previous cannabis convictions might still show up in those record checks.