Interview with Dana Passmore of Cannabis Amnesty
Recently, we spoke with Dana from Cannabis Amnesty and the importance of their organization. Below is our correspondence.
Q: For those readers who are unfamiliar with the organization can you tell them a little more about it?
A: Definitely! Cannabis Amnesty is an independent, not-for-profit advocacy group focused on righting the historical wrongs caused by decades of cannabis prohibition, particularly its impact on racialized and Indigenous communities who are overrepresented in cannabis arrests. The absence of federal legislation addressing the serious consequences of criminal convictions for actions that would no longer be illegal under the Cannabis Act instigated our founding in 2018. Since then we’ve run several public education campaigns, industry specific-education campaigns, and have even successfully lobbied the government to reform the process for applying for pardons for criminal records related to the simple possession of cannabis, leading to the implementation of Bill C-93.
Q: You are a member of the Cannabis Amnesty team. Who else is part of the organization?
A: I’ve been following Cannabis Amnesty for the past 3 or so years but only became a formal volunteer in the winter of this year. Cannabis Amnesty is led by our executive board, made up of academics, criminal defence lawyers, and marketing specialists. Annamaria Enanjor, a criminal defence lawyer and human rights activist, is our fearless leader. And this summer we were able to partner with TOQi and Aurora to sponsor a fellowship program, so we have two interns on until the end of the Summer!
Q: In 2019, the Federal Government announced that people with a criminal record for simple cannabis possessions could apply for a “record suspension” (previously known as a pardon). Do you know how many people have applied and how many have been granted?
A: As of June 1st 2022, the Parole Board of Canada has received 902 applications for cannabis record suspensions. Of these applications: 579 applications were accepted; 576 cannabis record suspensions were ordered and three (3) applications were discontinued; 322 applications were returned due to ineligibility or incompleteness;
Based on these numbers, and knowing that the government estimates 250,000 Canadians are eligible for a cannabis record suspension, Public awareness of the program is low, record suspension rate is lower, and barriers to apply are high
Q: Is there criteria that need to be met in order to apply for a record suspension?
A: You can only apply for a pardon under Bill C-93 if the only crime on your record is a simple possession charge (ie. Possession with intent to traffic is not a charge that is eligible for pardon), and if you have completed your probation/other conditions of your sentence - usually 5+ years after you were sentenced you can apply for a pardon. If you have any other charges on your record you need to apply for a pardon through the general criminal record pardoning stream, which has a much longer processing time.
Q: Are there any cost associated with applications?
A: The Parole Board waived the application fee for applications being submitted under Bill C-93, but there are still considerable costs associated with the application process. We estimate about a total $250 per applicant cost for the documents required with your application: Getting your criminal record documents from the RCMP, criminal record documents from the municipal police service that arrested you, certified original court documents, fingerprints, government issued ID (which get seized by police at the time of your arrest). There are added costs if you served in the military, in which case you need to retrieve a military report from wherever you were stationed.
Q: Can individuals who are currently incarcerated apply?
A: No, you need to meet most of your sentence requirements before you can apply for a pardon.
Q: With cannabis being legal in Canada for more than 3 years, what is slowing the process?
A: That’s a complicated question. Bureaucracy, administrative burdens on both the parole board and the applicants, politics, COVID-19 have all slowed the process. We’re talking about a pretty contentious issue here.
Q: Cannabis convictions seem to be more prevalent within BIPOC communities. Do you have any comment on this?
A: It’s a fact that Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour make up a disproportionate number of people who have been charged, convicted and/or incarcerated on drug-related offences. The first ever drug prohibition law was put into force in response to Canadians’ rejection of the Chinese population in British Columbia (Opium Act, 1908), and legislation since then has been disproportionately focused on legitimizing over-policing BIPOC communities. Back in the '80s, the government had enacted a new National Drug Strategy and had RCMP drug squads trained to profile people that they were suspicious and might be illegal drug couriers. This training program (Operation Pipeline, which was imported to Canada from the American DEA) effectively normalized racial profiling in drug-related investigations, street checks, etc., and resulted in grossly disproportionate increases in BIPOC being charged and convicted with drug related crimes (5 years after the National Drug Strategy launched, the rate of Black people being charged with drug-related offences had increased by 1164%, while increasing by 131% for white people). When Stephen Harper was elected as Prime Minister in 2006, he introduced a range of “tough on crime” measures that would expand the breadth and budget of the criminal justice system. More funding for police meant even higher police presences in low income and racialized communities, and new mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent possession and trafficking related offences led to massive increases of Black people serving time in prison (up 70% between 2005-2015). Black people also get harsher sentences, lower parole grant rates, and when released on bail before trial, receive stricter conditions than white people who were charged with the same crimes. I could go on and on, but I’d highly recommend the book Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard for more information about Canada’s history of institutionally-legitimized racist violence and the impacts of Canada’s War on Drugs on BIPOC communities.
Q: What is the difference between an expungement, pardon, and suspension of a conviction? What does this mean for those who receive them?
A: Full disclosure I’m not a lawyer. But from my understanding, record pardons and record suspensions are the same thing, the term “suspension” is just being used more regularly now. A record suspension/pardon, by the Parole Board’s definition, is set into a different database/gets set apart from the bulk of criminal records in the Canadian Police Information Centre after an application is accepted and a suspension is ordered. When you have your criminal record suspended, you will experience fewer obstacles and barriers that come with having a criminal record (finding jobs, education opportunities, community volunteering). With that said, the application process is strenuous, costly, and does not remove the criminal record from all government databases - the government may choose to reinstate your suspended record for any reason they choose (for example if a new government gets elected with a new political agenda, that suspended record can be reinstated without a second thought). Furthermore, if you get your record suspended and then try to cross the border to the US, American border security still has access to your criminal record. They can still deny you entry, detain you for questioning, and even permanently flag you such that you can never cross the border again – Americans don’t recognize suspended criminal records, all they see is an active criminal record.
On the other hand, record expungement is a complete erasure of a criminal record such that it does not appear in any government databases. Cannabis Amnesty has been demanding for automatic record expungement for simple cannabis possession convictions since 2018 – a system like this would remove the onus on the individual to apply for a pardon, and place that onus on the Parole Board or the Correctional Service of Canada to delete the eligible records. Interestingly, a Bill was proposed in 2018 that would have facilitated record expungement rather than record suspension, but this bill was defeated in its second reading and ultimately replaced with Bill C-93.
Q: What is Cannabis Amnesty doing to help those currently imprisoned for cannabis convictions?
A: Cannabis Amnesty has been tirelessly advocating for legal reform on cannabis related crimes since 2018. We have been educating the public about the legislative shortcomings of the Cannabis Act and the injustices that have persisted because of those shortcomings through a variety of campaigns (most recently the Legalize Us campaign). We are working on launching a free legal clinic for people seeking pardons to utilize and get legal support in their application process – launching later this year. Our lobbying efforts have resulted in the enactment of the Pardoning program in 2019, and this year, our efforts have resulted in the possible introduction of a new legal tool, made possible by a pending amendment to Bill C-5: automatic sequestration. This process would allow people who have served sentences for cannabis-related offences to have their charge automatically “disappear.” This proposed amendment was just introduced and is still being read and debated in the Senate, so there’s not a lot of public information available about what exactly it means and what exactly it will do to support people carrying these outdated criminal records. But it certainly sounds like a step towards amnesty.
Q: What resources are available for those who are seeking an expungement / assistance from Cannabis Amnesty?
A: I’m hopeful one day we will see old cannabis convictions be expunged automatically, unfortunately that is not yet a reality. Until the Cannabis Amnesty legal clinic is launched, I have to recommend consulting a paralegal that can help walk you through the pardon application process.
Q: The KookiJar Team is already involved with initiatives to support Cannabis Amnesty, but many of our readers are only learning about your organization today. How can they get involved?
A: I really cannot emphasize enough that the work being done by Cannabis Amnesty is not possible without donations and fundraising. Cannabis Amnesty is entirely independent, not for profit, and run by volunteers. Thanks to the generosity of different partners over the years, we have been able to stay open on a shoestring budget. But now that we are entering into a new and rebranded era for Cannabis Amnesty with plans to open a fully functional pro bono legal clinic, fundraising has never been more important than it is now. Reach out to Cannabis Amnesty to organize a fundraiser partnership, buy a pack of Joints for Justice – a pre roll pack by Royal City Cannabis Co. that remits profits directly to Cannabis Amnesty, educate yourself on why work like this is still necessary. The fact is, we need industry stakeholders to recognize Cannabis Amnesty as a cornerstone of this industry as long as cannabis convictions continue to exist in a post-legalization world, and to include us in their CSR initiatives. Ignorance is not bliss as long as people – the people that paved the way for legalization – are still facing the consequences of institutionally-legitimized prejudices that spurred the Canadian war on drugs.
Q: Do you have any final message for the KookiJar Family?
A: If you’re a stakeholder in the legal industry and partnering with Cannabis Amnesty is something that piques your interest, please don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org! You can make a donation of any amount at cannabisamnesty.ca.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with Cannabis Amnesty. For those readers who want to learn more or get involved, visit www.cannabisamnesty.ca