As soon as cannabis is legalized for recreational use on October 17, I will be introducing a private member’s bill designed to expunge the criminal records of those with a record for simple possession of cannabis.
There’s an estimated 500,000 Canadians with a criminal record for this offence. A criminal record can have a very negative impact on a person’s employment prospects, ability to volunteer, find housing and travel abroad.
As of October 17, possession of small quantities of marijuana will no longer be an offence in Canada. Social attitudes have changed; yet many people continue to have their lives seriously affected by the consequences of an activity that will soon be legal. I am introducing this bill because of the unfair way that the law has been enforced when it comes to cannabis possession. Wealthy individuals have been able to hire innovative lawyers and avoid punishment, leaving marginalized individuals to suffer. Indigenous and Black individuals have been disproportionately charged with cannabis possession.
In 2014, there were 2,177 inmates in federal prison for drug related reasons. 12.4% of these inmates were Indigenous people; however, the Indigenous population represents only 4.3% of the Canadian population. About the same percentage of inmates were Black; however they represent less than 3% of the Canadian population.
In fact, a 2002 Toronto Star investigation revealed that Black individuals charged with simple drug possession are taken into police stations more often than White individuals. And once at the station, accused Black people are held overnight for a bail hearing at twice the rate of White people. In Toronto, between 2003 and 2013, Black people were arrested at three times the rates of White people for simple drug possession, negatively affecting their ability to secure a job or housing.
Some argue that it has not been uncommon for people caught dealing or trafficking marijuana to accept an offer to plead guilty to possession, and that this fact alone should mean that records for simple pot possession ought not to be expunged. However, courts generally distinguish between three levels of seriousness of trafficking: social sharing, petty retail operations or full-time commercial operations. Factors such as the number of transactions and whether other drugs were being dealt are also considered. It’s highly unlikely that a full-time commercial operator selling a variety of illicit drugs would be charged for simple possession. We must continue to oppose the trafficking of cannabis and other illegal drugs and the funding of gangs through illegal drug sales.
But I support giving people second chances for nonviolent offences. And I strongly support reducing systematic barriers of success for marginalized and racialized individuals. Perpetuating the failure of Canada’s war of war on drugs is hardly a desirable public policy. My private member’s bill isn’t about giving Canadians a “free ride” once cannabis is legal. It’s about rectifying a history of injustices and trying to do better once a new legal approach to cannabis possession comes into effect.
Murray Rankin is member of parliament for the Victoria riding.