With marijuana now legal in several US states and the whole of Canada, demand for millions of people to have their cannabis convictions expunged is growing. In states like California and Illinois, the elimination of criminal records for cannabis possession is now being carried out on a mass scale, freeing an enormous number of citizens from the unjust stigma of criminalisation. North of the border, meanwhile, things seem to have stalled, with only a few hundred people having had their criminal records suspended since cannabis was legalised more than two years ago.
Half A Million Cannabis Convictions Expunged In Illinois
It’s now one year since recreational cannabis became legal in Illinois, and state officials have just announced that half a million people have already had their cannabis convictions expunged. Importantly, the Cannabis Regulation and Tax act, which allowed for legalisation in the first place, stipulates that state prosecutors must take the initiative in ensuring that all such convictions are overturned by January 2025. As such, those who carry a criminal record for cannabis possession do not have to apply or pay any fees in order to see their slate wiped clean.
Similarly, in California, all counties were required to proactively expunge all cannabis convictions by the summer of 2020, after the state legalised weed back in 2016. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego then set about clearing criminal records on a massive scale, aided by the non-profit organisation Code for America, which developed a piece of software that allowed legislators to rapidly identify records that were eligible for expungement.
Crucially, then, the expungement of cannabis convictions has been built into many of the marijuana legalisation laws in the US, guaranteeing the removal of criminal records. Given that holding a criminal record can severely limit a person’s chances of gaining employment or accessing financial services, the need to include automatic expungement in all legalisation measures is seen by many as essential. After all, if cannabis is not illegal then it is completely unjust to allow people to continue to be criminalised for having previously used pot.
Canada Needs To Expunge Cannabis Convictions
In 2018, Canada become just the second country in the world to legalise recreational cannabis. However, unlike a number of the American laws, the Canadian bill did not include the expungement of cannabis convictions. Instead, eligible citizens can apply to have their criminal record suspended, yet only 238 suspensions were granted in the first 18 months following legalisation.
The problem goes back to the country’s previous Conservative government, which did away with criminal pardons and replaced them with suspensions. This differs from an expungement, which completely erases a criminal record, resulting in an individual being deemed to have never committed that particular offense in the first place. Instead, a suspension merely sets a criminal record apart from other criminal records in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. It does not undo a conviction, and therefore does not automatically remove all of the barriers that are placed before people who carry a criminal record.
Initially, anyone wishing to have their criminal record suspended had to pay $631 (CAN) just to apply. Naturally, this put many people off, and the uptake was understandably very low. More recently, Justin Trudeau’s government passed a measure called Bill C-93, which waives this fee for anyone applying to have their cannabis conviction suspended. This has resulted in a slight rise in applications, but numbers remain appallingly low.
It is thought that upwards of 500,000 Canadians carry criminal records as a result of being caught in possession of cannabis, with those from black, indigenous and other ethnic minority communities being several times more likely to have been penalised. Activists have repeatedly pointed out that until all of these individuals have their cannabis convictions expunged, the hideous consequences of the failed War on Drugs will continue to haunt Canadian society.
Exactly why so few people have applied for a criminal record suspension is hard to discern, although there are several likely factors. The fact that certain fees still have to be paid in order to retrieve the necessary documentation to complete an application is just one stumbling block. Furthermore, the need to actively apply is likely to deter many people from marginalised communities, especially if their previous interactions with law enforcement have all resulted in negative experiences.
What’s obvious, though, is that huge numbers of Canadians continue to be disadvantaged by their historical marijuana use, which is why so many activists are calling on the country’s lawmakers to ensure that all of these individuals have their cannabis convictions expunged. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like happening any time soon.
A Word On Uruguay
Uruguay was the first country in the world to fully legalise weed, doing so in 2013. However, the country had already decriminalised all drugs back in 1974, which means that no one has received a criminal record for simple drug possession in almost 50 years. As such, there is no need to for anyone to have their cannabis conviction expunged.
That said, a number of Uruguayans have been penalised for trafficking cannabis over the years, but the government has never offered the expungement of criminal records for this offense.