OTTAWA — The federal government plans to move Wednesday on easing the process of obtaining a criminal pardon for simple pot possession.
The Canadian Press has learned the announcement on setting aside minor marijuana convictions of the past will come the same day the government ushers in a historic new era of legalized cannabis.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced pressure to address the pot pardon issue, including within his own caucus, due to the effect of possession charges on marginalized Canadians.
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Until now, simple possession of marijuana has been punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Individuals have been eligible to apply for a pardon through the Parole Board of Canada five years after the conviction is handed down.
But the waiting period and the $631 cost of applying for a pardon, known as a record suspension, have proven difficult for some people saddled with records.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin recently put forward a private bill calling for expungement of criminal records for minor cannabis possession offences.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh went further Tuesday, calling on the Liberals "to immediately delete'' the criminal records held by thousands of Canadians for simple cannabis possession.
One insider said the process to be announced Wednesday would not involve a mass expungement of records.
Rather, it will streamline the existing process of obtaining a record suspension. A suspension doesn't erase a record, but can make it easier to get a job, travel and generally contribute to society.
At a briefing Tuesday, federal officials told reporters that internal discussions had focused on an application-based process for speeding up pot pardons, instead of a blanket amnesty.
Much of the paperwork needed for a blanket amnesty resides in local courthouses out of the immediate and easy reach of the federal government and the Parole Board, officials said.
As of Tuesday the drug was still illegal, and officials at the media briefing said any charges or cases before the courts could still be prosecuted after legalization. The vast majority of drug cases are handled by federal prosecutors, who could decide, in the public interest, not to prosecute, they said.
The briefing was part of a last political push by the government to answer outstanding questions about a major social, legal and policy shift that will see Canada become the first G7 country to legalize the use of recreational cannabis.
Officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified by name, quietly admitted they are getting a lot of questions — from how Health Canada will handle complaints, to public awareness campaigns, to roadside impaired-driving tests.
As one official put it, they don't expect the questions to end and foresee bumps along the way after legalization.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford was quick to sound off Tuesday on the reliability of drug-impaired driving screens.
"It was three years ago Justin Trudeau campaigned on legalizing cannabis,'' Ford said during a speech.
"Three years later, the federal government still cannot give our police a single reliable piece of equipment to test for drug-impaired driving.''
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The prime minister repeated his oft-stated view that a regulated market for marijuana — a pillar of his 2015 election campaign — will keep cannabis out of the hands of Canadian kids and combat the flourishing black market.
Canadians 18 or 19, depending on the province or territory, will be able to buy and use fresh dried cannabis, cannabis oil, plants and seeds for cultivation from regulated retailers beginning Wednesday.
Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair said there are "very significant'' health and social risks related to edible forms of the drug — products expected to be widely purchased on the black market while it remains illegal to produce or sell them. Health Canada will develop regulations on edibles within a year, Blair said, adding he would caution consumers about their use in the meantime.
"They won't know its potency,'' Blair said. "It is very challenging to consume them in a safe way until those regulations are in place.''
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