Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians who buy pot are funding gangs and organized crime and will continue to be charged until marijuana is legal.
The Liberal government is looking at ways to deal with criminal records for possessing pot, but Trudeau said there will be no amnesty until after cannabis is legalized and controlled in July.
"Certainly we know the current legislation is hurting Canadians and criminalizing Canadians who perhaps shouldn't be. But that is an engagement we will take once we have a legalized and controlled regime in place — not before," he told reporters after a two-day cabinet retreat in London, Ont.
Trudeau said the government's plan for marijuana is "fundamentally" about public health and safety, and until the critical regulatory and security regimes are in place it will be treated as an illegal product.
"We recognize that anyone who is currently purchasing marijuana is participating in illegal activity that is funding criminal organizations and street gangs, and therefore we do not want to encourage, in any way, people to engage in that behaviour until the law has changed," he said.
"Once the law is changed, we will of course reflect on fairness in a way that is responsible moving forward."
The bill passed the House of Commons in November and is now in the Senate.
Possible pardons on the way
Earlier today, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed officials are examining "all the legal implications for possible pardons, or record suspensions, for criminal records for cannabis.
But he would not say how the government is likely to proceed.
"We're in the midst of a major change here. I know there is a real anxiety for a bit of a play-by-play commentary, but I think the responsible thing is to do the analysis, see where the unfairnesses are and take the appropriate steps to correct those problem," he told reporters in London, Ont., where the Liberal cabinet is holding a winter retreat. "But we need to do it in an orderly way."
A potential amnesty program was first reported in La Presse.
Critics have pushed for a pardon, or record suspension, program for simple possession of cannabis, and say people should not be criminally charged in the period before the government brings its legalization plan into force.
'Existing law remains'
While acknowledging "unfairnesses," Goodale said criminal charges and prosecutions must continue until the law formally changes. The government is aiming to legalize cannabis by July.
"We're moving in an orderly fashion to change the law appropriately and get the job done. In the meantime, the existing law remains and people need to obey that law."
Goodale said the change represents a "significant transformational change in the Canadian law."
He said any legal moves to address criminal records would not take place until after the laws are in force.
NDP health critic Don Davies said thousands of Canadians continue to get arrested, charged and convicted for something that will soon be legal, at a time when the justice system remains clogged and under-resourced.
"Parliament is well aware of the devastating consequences of carrying criminal convictions, especially for young people, Indigenous and marginalized Canadians," he told CBC News in a statement. "It is illogical and unjust to continue this policy on the eve of legalization."
Davies said the NDP proposed amendments to the pot legalization bill that would provide an expedited pardon process for Canadians carrying convictions for cannabis offences that no longer exist, but they were rejected.
"We once again call on the Trudeau government to create a process to pardon and expunge the criminal records of Canadians with cannabis offences," he said.
Supporting rehabilitation, crime prevention
Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Goodale, said anyone convicted of simple possession of up to 30 grams can apply for a record suspension through the Parole Board of Canada, five years after the sentence is completed.
The government is now in the process of reforming the pardons system based on "evidence-based criminal justice policies" that support rehabilitation and crime prevention.
He acknowledged pardons can be a significant barrier to employment, because some positions require criminal record checks.