Times Colonist: Expunge records for possession of pot, Victoria MP urges

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The federal Liberal government needs to start taking steps toward fulfilling its promise to legalize marijuana, such as by expunging criminal records for possession, says Victoria NDP MP Murray Rankin.

Rankin said in the House of Commons on Friday that if the government is serious about not criminalizing Canadians for simple possession of marijuana, it could take steps now.

“The current government could have taken immediate action, but has not,” said Rankin, the NDP justice critic.

“There are no details, no timeline for decriminalizing marijuana possession, no commitment to expunge the records of hundreds of thousands of Canadians convicted for simple possession, and thousands are still unfairly facing possible arrest, tying up the police and our justice system.”

Rankin said hundreds of thousands of Canadians are walking around with criminal records — limiting them in many areas of their life — for possession of small personal amounts of marijuana.

Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister and attorney general, said the government remains committed to legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana.

Blair said the government is pursuing changing Canada’s laws on marijuana “to protect our kids from the ravages of marijuana, to make our communities safer, and to reduce the social and health harm associated to its use.”

However, to execute that, Blair said the government must set up a federal-provincial-territorial task force to design a strict sales and distribution system with appropriate health safeguards.

Victoria lawyer Robert Mulligan said expunging the criminal records of people found guilty of possessing personal amounts of marijuana is an important, albeit challenging, piece of a bigger change that will have to be approached coherently.

“There’s a lot to this; it’s a challenge, and to expect the government to do it all so quickly is probably not realistic,” Mulligan said.

Expunging the criminal records for simple possession, for example, would be tricky on many fronts, he said.

There is no one national database that stores drug-possession records. There are repositories for this information at all three levels of government and policing and beyond, Mulligan said. Expunging all of those records would be an administrative challenge, Mulligan said.

And if Canada pardons a criminal record for possession, it doesn’t mean it would be recognized by other countries, he said.

As well, not all marijuana-possession convictions are specified under “marijuana;” some might instead be lumped in as “possession of a narcotic,” which could include a long list of drugs, Mulligan said. Also, trafficking charges for marijuana might have been reduced to possession convictions.

“I see [expunging criminal records for possession] as being an important piece, but I see it as being a piece of the whole initiative,” Mulligan said.

The approach has to be coherent and some pieces could be quicker and easier to execute than others, he said.

“If we are even entertaining the notion of not having any more criminal records for possession of marijuana, we certainly shouldn’t be creating any more new convictions,” Mulligan said.

“The idea of giving direction to the prosecutorial authorities — which will work its way down to the police — about not starting legal proceedings which could result in new convictions would seem to be something that could be done properly.

“The rest of it is a big administrative challenge in addition to a legal and principled and philosophical one,” he said.