It's been more than two years since the federal government launched a program to offer Canadians with criminal records for simple marijuana possession a fast, free pardon — but only 484 people have been granted one so far.
Critics of the system say the low number of pardons applied for and granted proves the program is unfair to the people affected most and that a blanket expungement of criminal records should take place.
According to figures provided by the Parole Board of Canada (PBC), 780 people applied for a pardon between August 1, 2019 and Oct. 1, 2021. Of those applications, 484 were granted and three were discontinued.
The PBC said that 288 applications were returned due to ineligibility or incompleteness and five more applications are still being reviewed.
The government initially estimated that about 10,000 Canadians would be eligible for the pardons, known as "record suspensions."
PBC spokesperson Jésula Drouillard said the number of applications might be lower than expected for a number of reasons. Some applicants might have cannabis-related charges other than simple possession, she said.
"Individuals with simple possession of cannabis convictions might also have other convictions such as theft or mischief, which would make them ineligible for a cannabis record suspension and, therefore, fall into the 'regular record suspension' stream," Drouillard said in an email.
The Liberal government passed a law in 2019 eliminating the program's $631 application fee, waiving its five-to-10-year waiting period and speeding up the application process. The government legalized and regulated the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana for recreational use in 2018.
At the time, the PBC sent letters to about 2,000 police and other justice partners, and several hundred organizations that deal with youth, mental health and addictions and Indigenous or Black Canadians, to raise awareness about the program and its eligibility criteria.
It also produced an application guide with step-by-step instructions and set up a toll-free information line and email address to answer questions.
A cumbersome process
Patricia Erickson, a professor of criminology and drug policy expert at the University of Toronto, said applying for the pardon is difficult and has discouraged many people.
"The process has become costly, cumbersome and requires a lot of form filling that not everyone can negotiate," she said. "A blanket pardon is the only thing that would have any real impact."
NDP MP Don Davies said that the cumbersome nature of the process to apply for a record suspension is daunting the people who need it most.
"The people who need pardons, particularly from pot charges, are typically the least able to access that process. They are the most marginalized Canadians — young people, Indigenous people and people of colour," Davies told CBC News.
Davies said that the only way to proceed is to offer everyone with a charge on their record related to cannabis a full record expungement.
John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees. He said that crimes related to cannabis should be erased in a blanket fashion, as was done for people with records related to acts of homosexuality.
"The government for many years told us that gambling was going to be the root of all evil and we should all be put in jail if we did it privately and now they are in the gambling business," he said.
"For years they told us that alcohol was the root of all evil and … now they are in the alcohol business. The government is now in the marijuana business. It's pretty hard for them … to suggest that people historically have moral culpability for something [the government is] now profiting off."
Struthers said the benefits of legalization are not being felt by marginalized and racialized communities — those he said have been most affected historically by cannabis criminalization.