In 2017, there were 13,768 people charged with marijuana possession, according to Statistics Canada. This number has been on the decline for some time. There were 17,720 charges in 2016, 21,320 the year before that, 24,535 in 2014, and 25,819 in 2013.
But even counting just the past five years, that’s still 103,000 people in Canada charged with a crime that won’t be a crime for much longer. And these charges can complicate job applications and border crossings, to name only the most obvious situations where a record check might occur.
If you’re one of these people, you might view this situation as unfair and decide it’s time to clear your record of that joint you smoked so many years ago. What’s your first step?
Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer and one of B.C.’s foremost experts on cannabis law, advised against what would be most people’s first instinct.
“If you Google ‘records suspensions’ or ‘pardons in Canada’, your first 20 hits are going to be people trying to charge you an arm and a leg,” he explained. “But if you just go to the Government of Canada website that’s maintained by the Parole Board of Canada, there’s good information there.”
You’ll find clear instructions there on how to apply for a records suspension (Canada’s official term for the mechanism commonly referred to as a pardon). It’s a relatively straightforward process with a fee of $631. “They even maintain an eligibility self-assessment tool and a video tutorial,” Tousaw added.
Andrew Tanenbaum, director of Pardons Canada, similarly described the process as simple but still recommended that people who can afford a lawyer pay for one to complete the process on their behalf.
“Doing it on your own is kind of like doing your own taxes,” he explained. Possible but not always advisable. At Pardons Canada, assistance applying for a records suspension costs $675 (in addition to the $631 that’s paid to the government).
Although it takes money and a few months, Tanenbaum suggested that seeking a records suspension for a cannabis offence is almost always worth it.
“As long as you have been out of trouble for a certain period of time, you are going to get it,” he said. “For a summary offence—a smaller offence, like a drug-possession charge—you’ve had to [have] been out of trouble for five years. If it’s a more serious offence, like a trafficking charge—that’s called an indictable offence—you’ve had to [have] been out of trouble for 10 years.”
While a straightforward process, it comes with significant limitations, cautioned Robert Mulligan, a defence lawyer with the Victoria firm Mulligan Tam Pearson. A records suspension clears one’s convictions from the RCMP’s Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database, he explained, but not from other databases, such as those maintained by the U.S. government and its border police.
In 2018, it’s likely no longer possible to entirely clear one’s digital records of past legal transgressions, Mulligan said.
“In the modern world, when it is so easy to store, share, and access digital records, there may already be large database volumes that can continue to cause harm well into the future.”