A campaign advocating amnesty for people convicted of cannabis offences says it is looking to partner with student groups and gain support among youth ahead of marijuana legalization next month.
The Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty launched in the spring and has been advocating through social media, petitioning and community events for a blanket pardon of cannabis convictions in Canada.
The campaign is looking to gain more support on college and university campuses now that the school year is underway.
“We are looking to engage with young people and students by partnering with student groups and talking with them individually,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, the campaign’s director of research and assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto.
The campaign has not yet made any formal partnerships with campus student groups, but organizers are planning to reach out to some groups ahead of legalization on Oct. 17, Owusu-Bempah said.
The campaign is now targeting students and youth because it feels that young people, who Owusu-Bempah defines as being less than 25 years old, are the ones mostly affected by cannabis convictions.
According to the campaign’s website, over 500,000 Canadians have a criminal record for a cannabis offence.
“A large portion of the people who are arrested for cannabis possession each year are young people,” he said.
According to a Statistics Canada report, even youth aged 12 to 17 have a higher rate of cannabis possession offences than the general population. In 2017, 342 people per 100,000 aged 12 to 17 were accused of cannabis possession. The rate for the general population was 105 per 100,000 people.
A cannabis conviction, even one for simple possession of the drug, can have life-changing consequences.
A conviction results in a criminal record which can make it difficult to get a job, a volunteer position, cross the border into the United States and even enter into some graduate programs, Owusu-Bempah said.
Paul Lewin, a cannabis defence lawyer in Toronto, said a cannabis conviction can also result in a person being barred from entering the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry once the drug becomes legal next month, because they have a criminal record.
“The fact that being a cannabis person excludes you from the cannabis system is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s some sort of upside-down world where, if you’ve worked at a dairy farm, you can’t get involved in the dairy industry.”
Lewin said he has mostly seen people aged 18 to 28 get convicted after working in dispensaries and many young people get convicted for simple possession.
He said he fully supports the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty, but also wants to see the government go a step further.
“There should be an apology,” he said. “It’s a shameful period in our history. Countries make mistakes, but when we move on we should recognize that was a mistake.”
Critics of cannabis amnesty say an automatic pardon should not be granted because the person broke the existing law at that time. The campaign disagrees, saying it would not make sense for someone to have a criminal record for something that is no longer a crime.
Owusu-Bempah said the government should follow in the footsteps of other jurisdictions which have provided pardons, like San Francisco where a computer system is purging all simple possession convictions.
The Canadian federal government will not openly commit on automatic amnesty for marijuana offences.
In a statement provided by the office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the government points out that Canadians are eligible to apply for a pardon for a simple possession conviction five years after the sentence is completed. However, it costs over $600 to apply.
“Once Bill C-45 is enacted, we will examine how to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted for minor possession offences,” the statement also said. “Our government is committed to reforming the pardons system.”
Owusu-Bempah said he expects the government will most likely provide automatic pardons for simple possession offences once legalization comes into effect on Oct. 17.
But those most affected by marijuana convictions, especially youth, would need to make their voices heard to make sure that happens, he said.