Within hours of the first recreational cannabis sales in Canada on Wednesday, the federal government announced it would expedite pardons for people who have been convicted of pot possession crimes.
“We will be proposing another new law to make things fairer for Canadians who have been previously convicted of simple possession of cannabis,” federal public safety minister Ralph Goodale told reporters during a press conference alongside other ministers on the legalization file. “Removing the stigma of a criminal record for people who have served their sentence, and then shown themselves to be law abiding citizens enhancing public safety for all Canadians.”
The Liberal government had for months faced mounting pressure from legal advocates to issue blanket pardons for Canadians convicted of simple cannabis possession offences once it no longer became a crime. Canadian non-profit, Campaign for Cannabis Advocacy, estimates around 500,000 Canadians currently have criminal records for simple pot possession. Earlier this year, a VICE News investigation uncovered police data that showed how Indigenous and communities of colour had been disproportionately targeted by cannabis possession arrests across the country.
Goodale said the government’s proposed law would allow Canadians with simple cannabis possession convictions, who have served their sentence for the crime, to be exempt from the government’s typical $631 fee for a pardon — officially referred to as a record suspension. Further, Canadians seeking a pot possession pardon would not be subjected to the usual lengthy wait times.
The government took a similar approach for Canadians previously convicted of consensual same-sex activities when it used to be a criminal offence in Canada. The Liberals introduced legislation last year to expunge the criminal records of Canadians previously convicted of those crimes, and the government promised to set aside $4 million to support that process.
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However, the pardons for simple cannabis possession offences would not completely expunge criminal records, a step that amnesty advocates were calling for. A pardon means that the records still technically exists, but an expungement would clear those records entirely.
Goodale also described how Canadian law enforcement agencies have spent “billions” on enforcing prohibition. However, a VICE News analysis found that legalization will still be a boon to police budgets across the country.
At the press conference, Canada’s Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor reiterated that her department’s work “doesn’t stop here” and that “the work of Health Canada continues and aims to ensure that within a year it will be possible to sell edibles and other products.”
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould reiterated the government’s other piece of legislation that ramps up criminal offences for drug-impaired driving.
As the first morning of legalization unfolded, Canadians celebrated the start of the new era.
The first legal sale happened after midnight in Newfoundland, the first timezone to enter Oct. 17. Bruce Linton, CEO of cannabis giant Canopy Growth, ushered in the sale surrounded by cameras and other cheering customers. On the other end of the country, British Columbia was the last area to launch its legal sales regime with a government-run storefront in Kamloops in a former dollar store.
About 70 people stood in line awaiting for the only legal store in B.C. to open, including Bubba Shaw, a long time grower from Vernon, B.C., who plans to buy cannabis and get it tested “so that as Canadians we can be sure it is what they say it is.
“There’s so much emphasis on the black market about what’s good and what they say is good and I just want to verify,” Shaw told VICE News.
Madeline Terbasket (pictured to the right) drove three hours with her father from Cawston B.C. “We wanted to be the first natives in the store and I think we will be,” she told VICE News.
Forest Funmaker, her father, said it’s a historic day not just for BC but for Canada and they’re glad to be a part of it. “It’s always been a part of what we do, before all this stuff happened, before colonization and all of that.”
“We want plants to be grown on reservations so we can get in on the profits” said Terbasket. “Before it was such a hassle to get it and how they grow it—so I feel a lot more trust.”
But others in line weren’t necessarily on board. Tom Ginn called the whole thing a cash grab. “I can go over to McDonald’s and buy an ounce of pot for $100. It isn’t only McDonald’s it is all around. It’s so cheap, why would I pay $35 for what I can get for half the price? “
“It’s just a big joke as far as I’m concerned,” he told VICE News. “I’ve been smoking dope for 50 years and this is the most expensive I’ve ever seen it. I honestly think this is going to take down the Liberal government.”
In Toronto, weed sponsored events cropped up across the city, from a countdown party with an enormous fake weed bud dangling from the ceiling, to a "wake and bake" weed photo booth and parties in city parks.
A lot of the media coverage centred around those first buyers, who provided earnest reactions.
By late afternoon, Canada's online cannabis stores were seeing an average of over 100 transactions across the country, according to Newstalk 1010 radio.
Meanwhile former conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney joined the board of directors of a cannabis company based in New York, according to news reports Wednesday morning, joining a cohort of former politicians and law enforcement officials who have been cashing in on legal cannabis, despite having been opposed to drug policy reform during their time in power.
On Monday morning, health policy advocates reiterated calls for the Liberals to do away with the prohibition of all drugs. The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Networked released a statement calling for the full decriminalization of simple possession of all drugs.
“Canada should also explore various options for responsibly regulating the supply of currently criminalized substances, as it does with other risky products and behaviours,” the group said in its statement. “This would enable a greater focus on protecting public health than the blunt tool of criminal prohibition that leaves the market unregulated and in the hands of organized crime.”
Cover image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking with the media on Oct. 17, 2018. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press. Photos of BC cannabis store by Carrie Swiggum