What Happens To Weed Criminals After Legalization?

What Happens To Weed Criminals After Legalization? (Canada and California)

Cannabis legalization in many states marks a distinct shift in drug policy. In a way, legalization is a sort of admission of guilt by governments that the arrest of nonviolent citizens for Cannabis is unethical. This conclusion raises an important question, if arresting citizens for weed will be deemed unethical in the future, then what will happen to those who were convicted of weed related offenses in the past? Should they be judged with the benefit of hindsight? Or is retroactive justice simply not on the table?Ex-convicts face a number of issues relating to their prior offenses. Employment, especially in desirable fields is often curtailed. Cannabis Ex-cons also face difficulty traveling outside their country of origin, being awarded scholarships or being able to live in community housing. A drug charge can alter someone’s life for the worse, sometimes permanently. These effects are undoubtedly felt disproportionately by lower-income communities.

California’s Mission

California weed farmer peruses his field
While not perfect, California has enacted a comprehensive plan to reverse Cannabis related charges

Californa recently joined Colorado and seven other states legalizing weed. The state which has long been renowned as for its progressiveness has long been a trailblazer for Cannabis rights. Back in 1996, it was the first American state to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes, despite Bill Clinton’s best efforts.Once again demonstrating that it is ahead of the curve, California has set in motion a comprehensive policy for how it plans to treat ex-convicts who have been convicted of cannabis-related charges.According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that attempts to combat the war on drugs reports that there have been 500,000 arrests for marijuana offenses in California in the past 10 years, and estimates as many as 1,000,000 people might be eligible to have their past convictions examined.

The Drug Policy Alliance protesting
The Drug Policy Alliance has been invaluable in the fight against the war on drugs (Image via Po.al)

The position of the California government is a strong statement. This policy of retroactive justice takes the position that cannabis prohibition was an incorrect policy and an indefensible position. Nonviolent, cannabis-related offenses arose out of this system of unjust persecution of drug users. Therefore, no matter how large the charge, it is only logical to assume marijuana convicts and ex-cons are entitled to a clean criminal record.

Issues With the Program

The program is not perfect and critics have been keen to point out how the poorer citizens might be at a disadvantage in getting their sentences removed. The process might be a lengthy one and those who wish to apply will have to appear in court which might be difficult for those required to work long and irregular shifts. This presents an additional problem of hiring an attorney, which might be difficult for many people of low-income status.The program has also received criticism for ineffective marketing on behalf of the government. It is feared that many who are eligible to have their criminal record amended will not apply because they are unaware of California’s commuting program.The program is not perfect, however, this is a good start. With cannabis legalization being such a new phenomenon in North America it is logical to assume that many of the kinks regarding retroactive justice will have to be ironed out as they’re detected.

Canada’s Inaction

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a speech
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been ambiguous on his statements regarding cannabis convictions (image via Canadian Press)

With legalization creeping up ever so slowly, no formal plan has been outlined to give amnesty to those convicted of Marijuana related offenses. Perhaps its time for the federal government to get out its notepad and jot down a few pointers. Prime minister Justin Trudeau has stated that post-legalization, those convicted of possession may be able to have charges removed from their record.However, this is only one portion of Cannabis convicts. What about those who sold weed? Unfortunately, their future is uncertain, and perhaps even bleaker for those convicted of trafficking offenses. Prime Minister Trudeau stated

“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. We’re going to do criminal background checks and make sure that this is being done responsibly.”

There is no word on whether those convicted during the raids on storefront dispensaries will be barred from the market or have their criminal records wiped clean.


To legalize cannabis is to admit the failure of the war on drugs. To continue to punish those who were convicted under an unjust system is hypocrisy. One can only hope that as cannabis prohibition becomes a thing of a bygone era, so too will cannabis related convictions… And leniency will be the order of the day.