Consideration of pot pardons overdue, says Ottawa activist

As the federal government weighs the implications of granting pardons for marijuana-related crimes, an Ottawa-based activist says the idea is long overdue.

John Akpata, a five-time candidate for the Marijuana Party of Canada, said he is heartened by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's comments on possibly providing pardons, or record suspensions.

"They could have solved this problem years ago. The attorney general could have dealt with it, the prime minister could have dealt with it, but they're lukewarm and wishy-washy," Akpata said in an interview with Adrian Harewood on CBC Ottawa News at Six.  

Akpata said the effects of a criminal record can be devastating and long-lasting — including barring people from government jobs and complicating travel — and have affected almost half a million Canadians.

"People have had their lives completely ruined when you have a criminal record, you can't get a mortgage. So how are these people supposed to live?"​

Which offences to pardon?

Goodale said the existing laws remain in effect and any changes to criminal laws would happen after marijuana is legalized. That's expected to happen in July of this year.

Ottawa criminal defence lawyer Anne Marie McElroy said Crown prosecutors are still laying charges and getting convictions on marijuana-related offences — including a handful related to dispensaries in Ottawa.

"It has seemed kind of ironic the way the legalization was announced and these kind of offences continue to be prosecuted," she said, adding prosecutors have been resorting to non-criminal consequences for simple possession.

McElroy cautions that not everyone with a pot conviction may be getting their record cleared if pardons line up with proposed restrictions in the government's cannabis bill, such as who can sell to whom.

"They're not going to be pardoning all types of marijuana offences. They may restrict [pardons] to the least serious and I would see that as the simple possession of a small amount for personal use," she said.

McElroy said it's not clear how the application process and fees would be handled for the pardons.

Apology in order, activist says

Akpata said the effects of current marijuana laws have been so widespread that the government should consider issuing an official apology.

"If the prime minister can apologize to the homosexual community for the way that homosexuals were excluded from participating in society and their rights were violated, the same has to happen for Canadian citizens [with marijuana convictions]," he said.

McElroy also said there is an analogy to the decriminalization of homosexual acts, though marijuana users don't represent the same kind of easily definable group.

However, she said pot laws have contributed to trapping some people from marginalized communities in the criminal justice system.

"It would be interesting if the government, in providing terms redress through pardons, would turn their minds how certain communities have been disproportionately impacted by the laws," she said.