Cannabis Amnesty’s Mission to End Cannabis Criminalization

Advocates in the U.S. are not the only ones pushing for retroactive sentencing and record relief for those arrested for and/or convicted of cannabis crimes. Our neighbors up north are also carrying out innovative and impactful efforts in this area as well. 

Cannabis Amnesty is an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to righting the wrongs caused by decades of cannabis criminalization in Canada. The organization was founded in 2018 in response to the Canadian government’s failure to effectively address unjust cannabis convictions following the country’s full legalization of cannabis earlier that year.

In 2019, Cannabis Amnesty successfully advocated for the creation of an expedited pardon (record expungement) process for simple cannabis possession convictions. This year they are launching  a series of initiatives to further address retroactive criminal justice relief in Canada, including a provocative video campaign highlighting  the employment struggles faced by those with cannabis-related criminal records. The video shows that a job applicant is denied an opportunity to even interview for a position because he first must “check the box” regarding his criminal record on the job application.

Employment barriers faced by those with cannabis-related records are just one of many challenges known as “collateral consequences.”  These consequences also impact housing, education, immigration status, and other important aspects of life.

The United States (emphasis on ‘States’) and Canada are not unique in their pathway to retroactive relief for cannabis crimes. Each country has seen progress, but millions of individuals in both countries still face the collateral consequences of a cannabis-related criminal record. In Canada, the federal government conducts pardons (parallel to expungements in the U.S.) on a case-by-case basis. But it was costly and slow—requiring a $631 pardon application fee and up to a 10-year waiting period to eliminate convictions for simple cannabis possession. 

In 2019, David Lametti, the Attorney General of Canada, announced an expedited application process that, despite its best intentions, is still burdensome. In addition, many individuals that qualify for pardons may not have the resources or know-how to do it, evidenced by the fact that only 484 pardons have been issued for cannabis since 2019. The Canadian government estimates that approximately 10,000 citizens could qualify. Similarly, in many U.S. states with legal cannabis, resentencing and expungement processes are costly, if they exist at all. Many states have failed to enact any meaningful retroactive relief policies, and most existing reforms have been adopted years after initial legalization. One exception, New Mexico, adopted automatic retroactive relief (automatic resentencing and expungement) alongside cannabis legalization in 2021. 

As advocates in both countries have demanded, automatic expungement/pardon processes are the most effective tool for reform—and they have yet to become a widely-practiced form of relief. Automatic record relief takes the burden off of individuals unjustly incarcerated and penalized for cannabis crimes, and places the responsibility firmly in the hands of the government that wrongly targeted them. Automatic record clearance and resentencing ensure that all who are eligible receive relief, and are much more reflective of true reform. 

Groups like Cannabis Amnesty are among the leading stewards of these long-overdue reforms in Canada. Their work highlights how merely ending prohibition is only the first step in reforming cannabis law, and seeks to right the wrongs of the past.

To learn more about Cannabis Amnesty and their work, visit their website: https://www.cannabisamnesty.ca/ and watch their recent video campaign!