As marijuana legalization looms, Trudeau hints at amnesty for possession convictions

A man is led away in handcuffs during a series of arrests at a Toronnto marijuana dispensary in April, 2017. Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A transitional period is never very dignified, or consistent, and Canada’s approach to marijuana is as good an example as any.

Every day, we move closer to a legal recreational market for pot, by working through the “how” questions. Police figure out how to identify stoned drivers, provinces figure out how to sell pot in a legal market, licenced growers figure out how they will supply recreational users.

And every day, Canadians caught with the demon weed are arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, charged and convicted under laws that have been in place since 1923.

READ: Liberals want to ‘send a clear message’ with tough sentences for pot offences: Jane Philpott

It has a certain logic, in a let-justice-be-done-though-the-heavens-collapse sort of way.  Recreational pot is illegal until Parliament says otherwise, and police are there to enforce the law, so transgressors are going to be charged.

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(Earlier this month, an Alberta woman who was growing one marijuana plant was charged by the RCMP, who arrived at her house armed with a search warrant. The plant was in her window, a Mountie said, “a blatant, obvious violation.”)

READ: London’s top cop says pot is still illegal, ahead of Thursday’s 4/20 rally

On the other hand, pot hasn’t been much of a priority for Canadian police for years, and the 2015 Liberal platform argued that “Canada’s current system of marijuana prohibition does not work … too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug.”

But since the election, awkwardly, Canadians continue to end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug – in 2015, over 20,000 people found with varying quantities of pot were charged with possession.

READ: Justin Trudeau says his father used connections to get late brother out of pot charges

At a forum Monday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted at a way out, without quite committing to it: pardoning at least some of the million or so Canadians with marijuana convictions next year, after legalization takes effect.

“We’ll take steps to look at what we can do for those folks who have criminal records for something that would no longer be criminal,” he said in response to a Toronto man who was frustrated to be entangled with the justice system over a marijuana charge, though marijuana will soon be legal.

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“We will change the law,” he said later in the evening. “We are taking the time necessary to get it right. Then we will move forward in a thoughtful way on fixing past wrongs that happened because of this erroneous law that I didn’t put in place and that I’m working hard to fix.”

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his younger brother, Michel, was able to avoid a criminal record after he was caught with marijuana because of his father’s connections.

Click to play video: 'Justin Trudeau says his father helped brother deal with pot charge'
Justin Trudeau says his father helped brother deal with pot charge

Trudeau’s comments represent a softening of the government’s position — only last week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said a blanket amnesty wasn’t on the agenda at all.

On the other hand, other comments he made seem to imply that the Liberals are only looking at an amnesty for people with possession charges, not trafficking charges.

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Trudeau predicted that those with trafficking convictions (like many arrested in raids on marijuana dispensaries across the country), will have trouble working in the legal market.

“If somebody is convicted of drug trafficking already, I don’t think they’re going to be rewarded with an opportunity to sell it legally,” he warned. “We’re going to do criminal background checks and make sure that this is being done responsibly.”

READ: Pot use after it’s legalized in Canada could still get you barred from U.S., lawyer warns

In the meantime, admitting ever having used pot in your life — let alone a marijuana-related conviction — can get you barred for life from entering the United States.

Even if the charges are later quietly dropped in Canada, a pot arrest will still be visible at the U.S. border.

If you’re barred from the U.S. for consuming pot, the only way to be allowed in is through an expensive waiver process. The waivers, which cost more than $1,000, only last a few years and have to be renewed, at which point the process starts all over again.

READ: Have you ever smoked pot? Answer ‘yes’ to a U.S. border guard and you could get banned for life

(The system stays in place although eight U.S. states have either legalized recreational marijuana, or decided to.)

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Trudeau ruled out just stopping laying pot charges.

“If you’re decriminalizing possession but you’re not creating a legal framework for producing it, then it’s still going to be organized crime producing it — the Hells Angels, street gangs controlling the sale of marijuana,” he said.

“Until we have a system in place that is a better system than our current system, the current system has to stand.”

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